Previewing NFL Kickoff 2016: Panthers at Broncos

For the first time since the NFL started the Thursday night Kickoff game to begin the season, the season opener features a rematch of the previous season’s Super Bowl matchup. That means the Super Bowl 50 champion Denver Broncos host the Carolina Panthers in Denver on Thursday night. Although they’re the defending champs, the Broncos will have a new look at a key position, with inexperienced QB Trevor Siemian under center. The Broncos were able to re-sign LB Von Miller to continue leading their defense for the foreseeable future.

QB Cam Newton leads the Panthers into Denver hoping to get revenge against the Broncos. He’ll be leading an offense that looks familiar to what the team had last season, with the addition of WR Kelvin Benjamin, who missed the entire 2015 season after tearing his ACL in training camp. On defense, the team will be without CB Josh Norman, who signed with the Redskins as a free agent.

Having Siemian at quarterback rather than QBs Peyton Manning — even with his diminished ability — or Brock Osweiler is a big blow to the team. Siemian will have to rely on WRs Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to help bail him out if his throws aren’t the best, and RB C.J. Anderson will have a bigger role than last season to take some of the pressure off of the young passer.

Both teams have a good defense so it’ll likely be a low-scoring game, which is what the Broncos will need if they want to win. The higher the score, the bigger advantage the Panthers have with Newton, the reigning league MVP, leading the team on offense. Losing Norman hurts the Panthers’ D, but the rest of the crew, including LB Luke Kuechly, should still have enough to make life difficult for Siemian, who took one snap last season — a kneel-down. I’m expecting a heavy dose of the run game from Denver on Thursday, The Panthers defense allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards in the league last season, so Anderson and backup RB Devontae Booker will have to work hard to gain yards. On the other side of the ball, Newton will be facing the best passing defense from 2015 and that limited him to just 265 yards and 0 touchdowns with 1 interception in the Super Bowl. He’ll need to do better than that to keep the offense on the field. Overall, the Panthers are the more complete team on both sides of the ball.

The over/under on the game is 42. I think it’ll be a low-scoring game, and I’m going to go under that total. I’m picking the Panthers to win the game, 21-13 (covering the 2.5-point spread on ESPN’s Pigskin Pick’em, to avenge the Super Bowl loss from February.

Stay tuned later in the week for my season preview and playoff predictions, along with the rest of my Week 1 picks.

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