So here we are, seven months later, and the Carolina Panthers are about to play the Denver Broncos once again.
One of the least eventful preseasons in Panthers history has concluded. Now comes the reward, if you want to call it that. On Thursday night, in one of the most eagerly anticipated season openers in team history, the Panthers go on the road and try to beat the Denver team that thwarted Carolina’s attempt to win its first-ever Super Bowl in February.
“Our goal is to be 1-0,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “But again, this is not the Super Bowl.”
Just like the Super Bowl, though, this game will be the only game in America that night and will be hyped for maximum effect over the next few days. It will also be played in a tougher venue for Carolina.
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Olsen and his teammates must fly to Colorado to play Denver this time in the Broncos’ home stadium, where it is legendarily hard to hear the snap count on third down.
Denver will line up with a very similar defense to the one that overwhelmed Carolina in the Super Bowl, keying the Broncos’ 24-10 victory. Olsen and the Panthers’ other captains have cautioned throughout the summer that nothing Carolina can do on Sept. 8 will make any difference in the Super Bowl outcome.
“We can’t make or break our whole season on the first game,” Olsen said. “What’s done is done. The past is the past. We have a whole new season to look forward to. The more we try to hinge on correcting what happened in the Super Bowl, the more we’re going to get pulled back. We’ve got to move forward.”
Change at QB for Denver
While the teams are similar in many respects to the ones that played in California on Feb. 7, there is one huge difference. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning has retired. In his place will be the unknown Trevor Siemian, a young quarterback who has never thrown a pass in a real NFL game.
“We don’t really know a lot about him,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said of Siemian. “That can be a good thing and that can be a bad thing.”
The Broncos basically asked Manning not to lose Super Bowl 50 for them, and he complied. Denver was only 1-for-14 on third-down conversions in that game, remember, as Carolina’s defense played plenty well enough to win. Denver had only 11 first downs, compared with Carolina’s 21.
But the Broncos’ defense was fearsome in that Super Bowl, setting up or directly scoring 15 of Denver’s 24 points thanks to two sack-fumble combinations performed by Von Miller on Cam Newton. Newton infamously backed away from trying to dive on the second one of those fumbles – an awful decision that all but ended Carolina’s last chance to win.
Newton did throw for 265 yards in that Super Bowl, too. But after being directly responsible for 45 touchdowns during his NFL Most Valuable Player season he was directly responsible for zero TDs in the Super Bowl. He was also hurt considerably by dropped passes (three by Jerricho Cotchery), blown assignments and near-constant pressure in the pocket.
‘It snowballed on us’
When asked what went wrong for the offense in the Super Bowl, Olsen said of the Broncos: “They’re a good defense, and good defenses force you into bad plays. But at the same time, we did a lot of things that were uncharacteristic. Drops, missed assignments, turnovers – you go right down the line. Those were plays we were accustomed to making. And on that day, for whatever reason, it snowballed on us, and we really didn’t get much going.”
This time Carolina will have Kelvin Benjamin available on offense, and he should help. The Panthers had a quietly successful August in several respects. “In the preseason,” Davis said, “you try to become better in all areas and you try to get out of it with the least amount of injuries that you possibly can. We’ve done a good job with that.”
Even with all hands on deck, Denver is a very difficult assignment. It doesn’t get much more difficult than trying to beat the defending Super Bowl champions on their home field.
But at least we can talk about a real game now. At last, the season is upon us.