Since the NFL schedule was announced in April, this game has been sitting there staring at the Carolina Panthers, mocking them like a leprechaun with a Jack Nicholson grin.
If Ron Rivera had his druthers, the Panthers would have opened the season in Charlotte, where they could have celebrated the NFC title they won during a remarkable 2015.
Instead, they’re in Denver on Thursday night to kick off the NFL season against the Broncos, the team that defeated them 24-10 in Super Bowl 50 in February.
Rivera and the Panthers players are ready to move on. But the schedule-makers, the media – even the film from the Super Bowl the Panthers have studied for the past two weeks – have made it impossible.
“We’re going forward. That’s what the message has been with these players all along is we’ve got to go forward,” Rivera said, before quoting his former Bears coach.
“Mike Ditka used to say the past is for cowards and losers, people that don’t want to let go.”
Rivera wants to let go.
“We want to use this as a springboard into 2016,” Rivera said this week, “not backward into 2015.”
Much of the talk this week has been about avenging the February loss in Santa Clara, but there will be no Super Bowl rings given to the winner of Thursday’s game.
There will, however, be plenty of pomp and circumstance before the game as the Broncos relive their win in the Super Bowl’s golden edition.
“They should. Because if they were coming here I’m pretty sure we would do the same thing. They earned it,” Panthers wide receiver Philly Brown said.
“I think we’ve got enough veteran players that we know how to control our energy. We love the lights, man. We love playing in those big games.”
A Super failure
The Panthers fell short on the biggest stage six months ago when the offense self-destructed under the weight of dropped passes, fumbles and a relentless Broncos pass rush that tied a Super Bowl record with seven sacks.
Outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller were responsible for 4.5 sacks. And if offensive coordinator Mike Shula can’t figure out a way to keep them off Cam Newton, it will make it hard for the Panthers to win.
The Broncos sent extra pass rushers in the Super Bowl to occupy the Panthers’ backs and tight ends and create favorable matchups for Miller (against right tackle Mike Remmers) and Ware (vs. left tackle Michael Oher).
Ware, 34, who has been dealing with back problems, did not suit up for any of the Broncos’ preseason games and will be on a limited play count Thursday.
Miller had two sacks against Newton that caused fumbles, resulting in 15 points and earning Miller Super Bowl MVP honors. The player picked second overall in the 2011 draft, one spot behind Newton, is ready for anything Thursday.
“I don’t know what exactly to expect. But Cam is great when he has a lot of time, so I’m sure that they’ll come up with some type of ways to block up and use the whole front, try to max protect,” Miller said. “I’m sure I’ll see my fair share of chips and little nudge blocks and all of that stuff. We’ll be well-prepared for that stuff.”
Miller then used an analogy involving Charlotte’s favorite basketball son to illustrate a point.
“You never ask Steph Curry how many 3-pointers did he shoot uncontested,” Miller said. “That’s part of it, being chipped and having the tight end (help) ... that comes with the game. I still have to find a way to be effective.”
A different day
Curry was among the 71,088 at Levi’s Stadium (to bang the Keep Pounding drum) for the Super Bowl.
But seven starters on the Broncos’ offense who were there are no longer with the team – led by quarterback Peyton Manning, who retired after winning his second Super Bowl ring.
Denver lost another quarterback when Brock Osweiler signed with Houston. The Broncos drafted quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round but will start Trevor Siemian, the ex-Northwestern quarterback whose only NFL snap came on a kneel-down in 2015 during his rookie season.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak says he won’t scale back the game plan too much for Siemian.
“We have to give him freedom. We’ve got to let him play,” Kubiak said. “Obviously when you’re talking about a Hall of Famer, that package may be a little bit bigger. But Trevor’s a smart kid and that’s one of the reasons he’s got himself in this position – because he’s able to handle a lot.”
Siemian will take aim at a Panthers secondary that has undergone major changes since February. Safety Kurt Coleman is the only starter remaining from a group that lost both cornerbacks, including Pro Bowler Josh Norman.
Stepping in at corner are rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, who represent the new team and new season Rivera and many of the Panthers’ veterans keep harping on.
“This is not a rematch. This is not anything like that. They won the Super Bowl. Hats (off) to them,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “This is a game we open up with, get a bad taste out of our mouths and get rolling for our 2016 season.”