Gary Kubiak liked what he saw from "the kid."
On a big stage among two of the league's biggest stars, Thursday night's primetime opener against the Panthers was never too big for the guy who had been leading the scout team seven months ago when these two teams met for the Super Bowl.
"The game wasn't too big for him," Kubiak said of Trevor Siemian's primetime NFL debut on Thursday.He was impressed the young kid didn't have mental errors typical of a inexperienced guys playing in a critical game.
"We didn't have to waste a timeout, we didn't get a call - you know what I mean? He handled the operation really good. The guys were confident in him handling the huddle and also doing it from 10 points down against a group like that. We have a lot of things that we have to clean up, ...but I think it was a nice first step."
While "the kid" had two interceptions on the night, it was an otherwise impressive start for Siemian - 18 of 26 for 178 yards plus one touchdown.
The former Northwestern quarterback wasn't flashy and wasn't perfect, but he did manage the ultimate goal - to lead his team to a win.
"He's a young kid, but man, he played with a lot of poise," Kubiak said. "That's a hell of a defense that we played."
In a tense matchup that the Panthers had undoubtedly marked as a revenge game ever since the rematch was announced, it was no small feat to emerge the victor.
C.J. Anderson called the game a "dogfight," and that's exactly what it was to the very end.
Kubiak pointed out after the game that he specifically scripted throwing the ball on the first five plays to show Siemian they were confident in their young quarterback.
"I trust the kid. I was trying to get him in a rhythm," Kubiak said, adding that he was also trying to get some touches for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. "I want him to know I believe in him. The only way you get better as a player is for your coach to trust you and put you in those situations. I thought he handled them well."
Not only did Siemian have to handle a lot of pre-game hype about the Super Bowl rematch and the pressure of playing against a very talented defense, No. 13 also had to lead comeback drives nearly the entire game.
Though the Broncos' first two offensive drives of the game looked promising with some key first downs and several third-down conversions, both drives prematurely ended due to turnovers - a fumble by rookie running back Devontae Booker and an interception on a pass intended for Sanders that came on a blitz the Broncos couldn't pick up.
But the young quarterback stayed true to his persona - remaining calm in the face of adversity - and marched the Broncos down the field before handing the ball off to rookie fullback Andy Janovich, who ran 28 yards into the end zone to tie the game at 7.
"It felt pretty good," Janovich said of his first NFL touchdown, "but I was positive that I was going to get caught from behind. I'm not the fastest guy out there."
But even if the rookie didn't recognize what a big deal the touchdown was, his mentor Anderson did.
"That was huge," the running back said of the player who is often getting blocks for him to run through. When Janovich got the call to take the ball, Anderson was excited to see him score. "When he finally gets a big run, it's huge. He just tossed the ball to the ref, but I was like, ‘That's your first touchdown.' I had to run out there and get the ball and give it back to him. I was excited for him."
Although the Broncos were in good position to keep the momentum going their way, the Panthers offense dominated the Broncos on the next drive, holding on to the ball for more than nine minutes and wearing down an already struggling Broncos defense.
"We played terrible in the first half," said Chris Harris, Jr., who had gotten beat on man-to-man during the Panthers' first scoring drive. With four instances of 12 men on the field in the first half, the Broncos defenders could not quite get on the same page.
The Panthers took full advantage of this, converting 100 percent of its third downs in the first half and spending 18 plays to go 89 yards during most of the second quarter before Cam Newton took the ball himself and dove into the end zone.
"We didn't play Bronco football," Harris Jr. added. "Third down was terrible, the offense was giving the ball away - we just knew we had to come in and play our game."
With Newton's two lethal weapons through the air - Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen - the Panthers racked up 111 yards passing offense in the first half, while Jonathan Stewart helped contribute another 99 on the ground.
The Broncos had an opportunity to cut the deficit before half but failing to convert a first down, the Broncos punted with enough time on the clock for the Panthers to
capitalize with a field goal and go ahead 17-7 before halftime.
"It was communication," said linebacker Shane Ray of the defense's struggles. "We weren't communicating well in the first half, and it cost us some big plays. Then, we got that down coming out after halftime. We regathered, regrouped and figured out the mistakes we were making as a team and we came back out and attacked."
The entire team rallied to improve their second half statistics - which they did. The defense held the Panthers to just 3/9 on third-down conversions and to only three points in the second half.
The offense - led by a solid running game that gained ground behind an improved offensive line - marched into the end zone two more times in the half, despite turning the ball over on the first drive of the third quarter and then punting on the next two drives. But at the end of the third, the offense got in sync and put together an eight-play drive that saw Anderson cross the goal line on a 25-yard pass play.
Thanks to an interception by Harris on the second play of the Panthers' next drive, the Broncos got the ball back right away in Carolina territory and capitalized after a fourth-down goal-line conversion to score a third touchdown and go up 21-20.
l use of hands call just after the two-minute warning gave the Panthers a first down on their own 29-yard line - instead of a 4th-and-21 - to keep the drive alive.
Another roughing the passer call against Darian Stewart offset an intentional grounding call against Newton and again kept the Panthers' hopes alive, eventually working their way to the Broncos' 37-yard line with just four seconds to go.
A winning field goal seemed imminent, but a classic "icing the kicker" timeout got into the head of Graham Gano, and the Panthers' kicker missed a 50-yarder wide left.
"We knew this was going to be a battle," Kubiak said. "To come in here tonight and make the mistakes we made, and survive, it's a really good feeling. We have a lot of work to do if we are going to be a consistent football team and I know we can be. We're going to go fix those mistakes."
And the coach has no concerns his young quarterback being able to do just that. Like he's done with many signal callers before, Kubiak goes over the game plan the night before with his QB, making calls and asking the quarterback to "spit football" back at him.
"This kid is really exceptional. I had a lot of confidence when I left the meeting last night with him. I told the team that," Kubiak added. "Like I said, I think he did a really good job. We can play better around him. He's going to go correct his mistakes on a daily basis. It was a good start for him."
And just like that the Broncos' 2016 season opened almost exactly as every game had been scripted in 2015 - making big plays at crucial moments to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at nearly the last second.
But like Von Miller said, "that's just how we're built."
"It's not about one player or one group. It's a whole team effort and that's how we got it done," Miller said, adding that the defense doesn't look at it like "bailing out" the offense. "We just need to go make a play to put us in good field position to score. It's not about bailing each other out. It's a team. We work together and that's what team work is about. Whenever we turn the ball over we say ‘Ok, we have to go back out there and get the ball right back and make a play.'"
DeMarcus Ware did it with his sack on Newton midway through the third quarter, and suddenly the No Fly Zone was electrified, batting away passes, intercepting the ball and generally wreaking havoc on the field.
"That's how it is on this defense," said Bradley Roby. "We can start off dead, but we just need one or two plays to really get us in it. D-Ware made the sack. Chris changed the game. That's what we do. You never know who it's going to come from on this defense. It's great."
For the offense it was about being patient and not letting the mistakes get in their heads.
"We know it's a 60-minute football game where you can't get uneasy when things go bad," said Virgil Green, who had four receptions for 28 yards. "Things are going to happen. Fortunately for this team we know how to handle adversity and that's what we did tonight."
The Broncos also know they got a little lucky in the way the game played out yesterday, but they believe they made their own luck by being in a position to win - which is about all you can ask for in a game.
"We knew that we were going to have our hands full and that it was going to come down to the wire against these guys," said Siemian, aka "the kid." "We knew we would have our hands full with that front, and it was a heck of a team win - offense, defense picking up the slack when they had to. It was fun to be a part of."