Who: Denver Broncos (0-0) vs. Carolina Panthers (0-0)
What: NFL season opener
When: 6:30 p.m. MDT, Thursday, Sept. 8
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth
Radio: KOA (850 AM), The Fox (103.5 FM)
Odds: Panthers -3; O/U 41.5
The Orange & Blue own a 36-19-1 (.655) all-time opening-game record which is tops in the AFC and ranks second in the league only to the Cowboys’ 37-18-1 (.673) mark.
This will mark the sixth consecutive season the Broncos have opened at home, and five of those contests have been nationally-televised prime-time games.
Denver has won 15 of its last 16 home openers – losing only to the Raiders (23-20) in 2011 – and is an NFL-best 28-4 in home openers since 1984.
This will be only the seventh following-season Super Bowl rematch, and the defending champs have won four of the six. It will only be the second time, though, that the rematch has been contested in Week 1 with the Vikings defeating the defending-champion Chiefs 27-10 on the opening weekend of the 1970 season.
In general, defending Super Bowl champs have won 19 of their last 22 season openers, but the 1999 Broncos suffered one of the losses, falling to the visiting Dolphins 31-28 in a Monday-night game.
Overall, including Super Bowl 50, Denver is 4-1 vs. Carolina with the Panthers’ only win coming in 2008 (30-10 in Charlotte).
What to Watch For
Siemian’s first (real) start: Most eyes, of course, will be on second-year QB Trevor Siemian in his NFL starting debut. He’ll be the 15th QB drafted by Denver to also make his starting debut with the club, but those first-time starters are 2-5 going back through Gary Kubiak’s debut in 1983. Siemian was 27-of-43 for 285 yards, one TD and two interceptions for a 70.4 rating in the preseason, and it’ll be interesting to see how much rein he gets to throw downfield after checking down and throwing mainly underneath the coverage in August. Perhaps, though, Kubiak and the offensive staff will be tempted to put the ball in the air more than expected and let Siemian challenge
The Norman-less Carolina secondary: All-Pro CB Josh Norman, who received the franchise tag from the Panthers, was released this summer in a curious move, leaving rookies James Bradberry (second-round pick) and Daryl Worley (third-round pick) as the starting corners. Veteran strong safety Roman Harper also wasn’t re-signed, and Tre Boston, a third-year player, is stepping in to give Carolina three new starters in the defensive backfield. How will they hold up against one of the best receiving duos in the league in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders? With Norman shadowing Thomas in the Super Bowl, Sanders led all Super Bowl 50 pass-catchers with 83 yards on six receptions and eight targets.
Who’s feeling the pressure? That’s the key question with a national audience watching these two teams meet for second straight NFL game of consequence. Is it coach Ron Rivera’s Panthers and QB Cam Newton who were outcoached and outplayed in the Broncos’ 24-10 win in Santa Clara, or is it the defending champs who are opening at home with essentially a rookie QB under center? The Panthers are once again favored, so the Orange & Blue can at least play the underdog/respect card again, which they did quite effectively a season ago.
The Denver D: After only receiving limited snaps in the preseason, Von Miller and the Broncos’ starting defense is certainly rested, but will it be ready to go a full 60 minutes against the league’s best offense from a season ago fresh out of the gate? The Denver 'D' has depth but won’t have Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan on its side this time. They will be facing a Panthers passing game which gets back the services of 6-foot-5, 240-pound wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who missed last season due to a preseason ACL tear. Benjamin made an immediate impact his rookie season with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine TDs, but he could be on a snap count Thursday (reportedly 35 or so) as he rounds back into full game shape.
Special teams: It’s flying under the national radar, but the Broncos will be starting three new specialists in Week 1 with rookie punter Riley Dixon, kickoff-returner Cody Latimer and long-snapper Casey Kreiter. Kickoffs might not come into play much given the two defenses and altitude, but Dixon is sure to get his fair share of work punting and holding for field-goal attempts – which, as Broncos Country knows, didn’t exactly go smoothly in the preseason. Now, the lights are on for real, and we’ll see how the seventh-round pick responds.