Much has changed since the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, and the evidence will be undeniable when the same teams kick off the 2016 season Thursday at Sports Authority Field.
Denver's win in Santa Clara, Calif., was a coming-out party for linebacker Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP, who made life miserable for regular-season MVP Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Since that defining performance, Miller became the highest-paid player on the Broncos' roster – and the top-paid defender in the league. In addition, five-time league MVP Peyton Manning retired, the Broncos lost his backup Brock Osweiler in free agency and cut Mark Sanchez, the player acquired in March to become Denver's starter.
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What's left is most of the core of Denver's defense, which harassed Newton and the Panthers into mistakes and missteps from start to finish in February.
“I think you could use a lot from that game, but you'd be fools to think that they're going to run the same plays,” said Miller, who had 2 1/2 sacks and forced a fumble in Super Bowl 50. “I think that we could use some things that we didn't do well and some things that they did well and we think that they're going to try and attack us in those areas.”
Continuity counts in Carolina's favor. The Panthers cut ties with All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, who went on to sign a mega-deal with the Washington Redskins, but the heart of the NFC championship roster is otherwise nearly intact.
For his part, Newton downplayed his shot at redemption Thursday night, saying “it's not a rematch” at all.
Newton knows he won't see Manning on the field this time.
The Broncos didn't even announce a starter until after their third preseason game of 2016. Trevor Siemian, a 2015 seventh-round longshot out of Northwestern, beat out Sanchez and 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch for the opportunity to face Pro Bowl linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
While Denver head coach Gary Kubiak has been enthused about the growth of Siemian, the harsh reality is that the Broncos head into the 2016 home opener with question marks all over the offense.
That's feeding the heightened pulse of the Panthers, who marched through the regular season with a 15-1 record last season and aren't hiding the revenge play.
“I think it gives us that chip on our shoulder that we need knowing that's the team that held us back from our ultimate dream,” Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said.
It's not just Siemian getting comfortable. The entire offense is attempting to jell behind a mostly new front five. Only one starter from the Super Bowl offensive line, center Matt Paradis, is back.
Denver's piecemeal group will be facing a defensive line that the Super Bowl offensive line could hardly block. Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy had a game of a lifetime. He recorded three sacks and had a hand in two takeaways.
More than Ealy, the Broncos will be worried about the interior line of the Panthers, defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.
Protecting Siemian is a top priority. The Broncos still have offensive weapons on the outside at wide receiver. This is the major area the Broncos hold the advantage. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are two of the best in the NFL but for each of them to shine, they must hope the offensive line holds up and Siemian has the time and ability to get them the football.
The Panthers will be starting a rookie cornerback and playing a total of three rookies against the duo of 1,000-yard receivers.
Kuechly said Carolina won't overlook Siemian after studying his preseason film.
“I think he's smart; I think he's confident in what he's doing, and they do a good job of running the ball – that makes everything easier,” Kuechly said. “I think he has a good grasp of what they're trying to do offensively, and we have to make sure we're prepared for it.”
James Bradberry, Zack Sanchez and Daryl Worley all were selected by Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman to fill the void left in the secondary. All three, along with Bene Benwikere, will be tasked with trying to contain the Broncos passing attack.
The Panthers made the Super Bowl with average wide receivers last year. With the return of Kelvin Benjamin – who could be allowed to play up to 35 snaps in his first game back from a season-ending ACL injury in 2015 – and the maturation of Devin Funchess, Newton has legitimate threats on the outside to test the Broncos' feisty secondary.
Old reliable Greg Olsen had a career year at tight end in 2015 and will be looking to top those statistics versus a rebuilt Broncos' linebacking corp.
“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 keep getting pulled back.”