The Broncos’ 21–20 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Thursday’s NFL opener played out a lot like the team’s 2015–16 championship season, when Denver won 11 games by less than a touchdown. The defense dominated in the second half, when it counted most, and—with repeated punishment to a shaken-up Panthers QB Cam Newton—put Denver in a position to win when Panthers kicker Graham Gano’s 50-yard attempt sailed wide with nine seconds remaining.
The Broncos offense, too, showed flashes of last year’s somewhat frustrating campaign, as Trevor Siemian & Co. endured a rough first half in which the Northwestern grad threw two picks. But he eventually got the offense going, engineering two fourth-quarter scoring drives that turned the home crowd’s boos into a chorus of relieved cheers. Not bad for a guy who entered the game having never thrown an NFL pass.
So now that the Broncos (narrowly) escaped the much-hyped Super Bowl 50 rematch with a victory, how are #UnitedInOrange fans feeling about their team? Is this a win to build on, or a Pyrrhic victory that demonstrates the holes the team needs to fill in order to successfully defend their AFC West crown and league title?
It’s a bit of both.
On the defensive side, the Broncos proved that despite the departure of a few big names—i.e., Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan—this year’s unit might be just as mean and effective as last year’s. While the array of unflagged head shots Newton absorbed during the second half have been subject to controversy—the league and the NFL Players Association are separately investigating the multiple helmet-to-helmet hits, and some Broncos players will surely face fines—for now Denver has proved their defense should still be feared.
On the offensive side, Siemian’s final line (18 of 26 for 178 yards, one TD, two INTs and a 69.1 QBR) gives Denver fans reason to be cautiously optimistic. If Siemian can continue to be a “game manager,” which he did adequately on Thursday night, that should be enough to give the team a chance to win almost every week. “I think Trevor played well,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said in the post-game presser. “Obviously, he had two balls he’d love to have back. He’s going to make mistakes. He’s a young kid. But, man, he played with a lot of poise. He’s down 10 to a championship football team and he just moves and makes plays with his feet. He’s going to watch film. He’s going to get so much better.”
Regardless, Siemian will need help. C.J. Anderson did his part, rushing for 92 yards and a score and catching a key touchdown pass in the fourth. But Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas combined for just nine catches and fewer than 100 yards. Those three offensive veterans must carry more of the playmaking load going forward, especially in the season’s early stages when Seimian is adjusting. (However, Thomas apparently injured a hip during the game and it will be a few days before we know how serious it is.)
“We knew we’d have our hands full,” Siemian told the Denver Post’s Nick Groke following the win. “And it would come down to the wire against these guys. That’s how a lot of games in the NFL work out.” He’s right: Heading into Monday night’s doubleheader, eight games this week have been decided by four points or fewer.
Just like last year, we can probably expect the Broncos to be in a lot of nail-biters in 2016. With the bullseye on the defending champs’ back—and a much stronger AFC West from top to bottom—the defense won’t be able to bail out Siemian every week.