The last time the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers played against each other, the Broncos defeated the Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50. Neither teams' fan bases will forget that day and most certainly the players and coaches who participated in the festivities will not either. Have no doubt that revenge is on the mind for the Panthers, who will do their best this evening to rid themselves of the nightmare they endured back in February.
The Panthers return a Super Bowl caliber roster for the 2016 season. They added a duo of young cornerbacks in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, as well as versatile defensive lineman Vernon Butler in the first round of the NFL Draft — all three of them are expected to be big contributors for the Panthers defense this year.
They didn't have many significant upgrades via free agency, but Gino Gradkowski was added as a back-up center and Paul Soliai was brought in as depth at defensive tackle. Perhaps the most shocking development for the Panthers was the loss of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, who was offered the franchise tag, but later had it rescinded when the two parties couldn't come to an agreement on a long-term contract.
A Concern for Carolina - Starting 2 Rookie Corners
Former Panthers and current Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman shut down Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in Super Bowl 50, but will be fielding two rookie corners as starters to go up against Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders under the bright lights at Mile High.
James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have impressed throughout the preseason and have earned the right to go up against two of the best receivers in the NFL. Both of them possess great size (6'1, 205 pounds respectively) and are a good scheme fit for the heavy Cover 2 defense the Panthers employ.
The X-Factor for Carolina - Kelvin Benjamin
The Panthers selected the former Florida State Seminoles product in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. As a rookie, Benjamin took the NFL by storm and reeled in 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and 9 touchdowns — but were without his services for the entire 2015 campaign due to a torn ACL.
At 6'5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin is a monumental target on the field and has the athleticism to make game-changing plays whenever he gets his hands on the ball. It will be up to Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, who possesses the size and ability to match-up well against the Panthers receiver. This is a situation to watch keenly throughout the game and I expect Cam Newton to attempt to get in a rhythm early with Benjamin.
Key Matchups to Watch
Von Miller vs. Mike Remmers
Von Miller beat Mike Remmers like a rented mule in Super Bowl 50 and racked up 2.5 sacks and two game-changing strip-sacks that propelled the Broncos to their third championship and earned him MVP honors. That battle will occur once again tonight and I guarantee Panthers fans are very nervous and are worried that Remmer's worst nightmare will continue to wreak havoc on him once more.
Expect the Panthers to give Remmers all the help he can get on his side with an extra tight end in order to offset the ferocious pass rush of Miller and most importantly, run the ball heavily in order to attempt to set the offensive tone and tempo for the game. The Panthers offense was deadly during the course of the 2015 regular season and most of the playoffs, but were shut down by the Broncos in extraordinary fashion in the Super Bowl.
Kony Ealy vs. Russell Okung
If the Carolina Panthers had won Super Bowl 50, there is a good chance defensive end Kony Ealy would have been the game's MVP. This is an exciting match-up to focus on throughout the course of the game. The Broncos brought in Russell Okung to replace long-time left tackle Ryan Clady.
If the Broncos want to have success on offense, Okung isolating the pass rushing prowess and overall game of Ealy is an absolute must. It's a big test for one of the Broncos' most prized off-season acquisitions and will play an integral role in who comes out victorious in tonight's gridiron battle.
Trevor Siemian vs. Carolina's Secondary
If there is one weakness on Carolina's team it would be their secondary. Led by seven-year veteran safety Kurt Coleman, the Panthers' secondary isn't anything to write home about, but have the opportunity to make big plays if their defensive front seven beats out the Broncos offensive line in the trenches.
Can second-year quarterback and first-time starter Trevor Siemian take advantage of Carolina's secondary by connecting with Thomas, Sanders and the rest of the Broncos receiving unit? He is going to have to if Denver wants a chance at winning this game. Well set-up play action plays would work well against the heavy Cover 2 scheme of the Panthers if Siemian is afforded enough time to make a throw.
If either Bradberry or Worley make any mental errors (which is certainly plausible given their rookie status) and bust their coverage, it could leave the aforementioned Coleman or Tre Boston in a very tough predicament. Don't be surprised to see the Broncos offensive come up with a variety of formations, perhaps often occurrences of three-wide sets stacked to one side that engage high-low passing concepts in order to cause the Panthers some confusion on defense.
Call me a homer or color me optimistic, but I like Denver's chances at home. I think the defense will play a lights out game and believe t the offense make enough plays to help boost the Broncos to victory. The Panthers players talk about having a chip on their shoulder, but it is hard to imagine a bigger chip than what the players on the Broncos will be carrying considering the amount of doubt and skepticism they are receiving from the national media.
Broncos 24, Panthers 20.