Carolina Panthers (-3, 42.5 o/u) at Denver Broncos
Screw the cold! The Carolina Panthers want their revenge piping-hot and the NFL schedule-makers obliged. For the first time ever, the new season will kick off with a rematch of the previous year’s Super Bowl, when the vanquished Panthers visit the reigning champion Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium on Thursday, September 8th (8:30 PM Eastern).
This game will mark just the seventh Super Bowl rematch to take place the following season, and the second to occur in Week 1. Back in 1970, the Minnesota Vikings avenged a Super Bowl IV loss they believed never should have happened by thumping the Chiefs 27-10. While the Panthers weren’t the towering 12-point favorites that those ’69 Vikings were, they were expected to win Super Bowl 50. Instead, they’ll watch Denver raise their third title banner, before attempting to cut the celebration short with a season-opening win.
After an offseason of change, these aren’t the same rosters we saw seven months ago; but expect this game to look similar to the defensive slugfest from February. The Broncos had to let Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan go from their D in order to make Super Bowl MVP Von Miller the highest paid defensive player in the league. While that makes them a touch weaker up the middle versus the run, it means the pass rush that racked up seven sacks against Carolina will be just as dominant this year.
The Panthers didn’t make any upgrades along the offensive line this summer, meaning it could be another night of pouting for Cam Newton. Last season’s league MVP, Newton was visibly upset with how the big game played out last year, leading to weeks of criticism over his character and leadership.
This time around, though, Newton will have a new element in wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of 2015 with an injury. The Panthers lacked a true number one target on the outside last year, meaning defense’s focused heavily on taking away tight end Greg Olsen.
Denver has a loaded secondary with Aqib Talib (if he’s not suspended) and Chris Harris Jr. on the outside, but they should roll coverage to whatever side Benjamin is on. If the Broncos do keep their corners on an island, it’s still a far better matchup for Carolina than having Ted Ginn in the same situation.
You’ll see the biggest change for both teams when the Bronco offense takes to the air. For Denver, there’s a new sheriff in town; we just don’t know who it is yet. Mark Sanchez is being pushed for the starting QB job by second-year Trevor Siemian, with rookie Paxton Lynch waiting in the wings.
Whoever wins the job, they’ll bring a new element to the offense: the ability to throw a spiral. Peyton Manning was an inspiring story and all, but his chuck-a-duck technique didn’t exactly help the Broncos offense last year. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders should have a few more opportunities to make plays downfield regardless of who is the Week 1 starter.
The Panthers should also have a tougher time stopping Denver’s passing attack after overhauling their secondary. Gone is breakout corner Josh Norman, as well as Roman Harper and Charles Tillman (who was injured for the Super Bowl). The group tasked with replacing them includes rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. It’s hard to think of a tougher welcome to the league than having to corral Sanders and Thomas.
Carolina’s front seven remains one of the best in the game, and it will be their responsibility to make sure the inexperienced back end isn’t exposed. Charles Johnson, Kawann Short, and the rest of the Panther D-line had five sacks of their own in Super Bowl 50, but the Broncos at least tried to upgrade their tackle spot this offseason by adding Russell Okung.
Another thing Denver will be able to accomplish without Manning under center is a more versatile stretch run game with C.J. Anderson. The back had a strong day against Carolina in February, grinding out 90 yards on 23 carries. Throw in the advantage the Broncos have on special teams, and the quarterback matchup is really the only area the Panthers have working in their favor.
Since the defending champion began hosting the kickoff game in 2004, they’ve gone 10-1 (in 2013, Baltimore was forced to play on the road due to scheduling conflicts). Denver was also undefeated against the spread as an underdog last season, going 6-0.
While I understand bettors are either motivated by the Panthers’ revenge storyline or scared of Sanchez under center, there’s no way the defending Super Bowl champions should be getting three points at home to start the year. Consider it a welcome-back-to-football gift.
Pick: Broncos (+3).
Photo credit: Arnie Papp (Originally uploaded to Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].