ENGLEWOOD, Colo.— Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak knows how difficult things are going to be on Thursday night. His team will face off in a rematch of Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers in front of the largest television audience the NFL will have all season.
“Obviously, it’s a big game against a tremendous opponent,” Kubiak said. “We’re going to have to play special. That’s what it’s all about.”
Of course, last February, the Broncos beat up on Carolina in the big game 24-10. However, as Broncos players and coaches are quick to point out, both these teams are very different than they were six months ago.
“This is a new team, new year, new season,” Kubiak said. “We’re studying from what they’ve done this year, I’m sure they’re doing the same thing. We have to stay focused on this time around.”
For the Broncos, the biggest change is under center. For the first time in four years, Peyton Manning won’t be running through the tunnel on Thursday night. Instead, second-year Northwestern alum Trevor Siemian will start for the Broncos at the most important position on the field.
“I really like the way that he works,” Kubiak said. “He can carry a lot of information in a short period of time. He can go into that meeting room for two hours in the morning, walk out of here at 11:30 and take it to the field. You can’t teach that. Guys can handle it or they can’t so he’s handling a lot information, handling the team and practiced well today. We need to help Trevor all that we can, but I know Trevor is ready to do his part and we’re behind him 100 percent.”
On the opposite sideline, Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton is coming off an MVP season where he threw for 3, 837-yards, 35-touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran the ball in 2015 132 times for 636-yards and 10-touchdowns.
The Broncos are fully aware of the two dimensional challenge he presents for their defense.
“He’s one of those quarterbacks, he’s one of one,” outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. “You see him running the ball, he’s like a running back and a quarterback, like a two-dimensional type of guy and he can beat you in so many ways so he’s one of the top quarterbacks that I’ve been against.”
Looking at Newton’s 2015 stats, it’s easy to forget he went through all of last season without top receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who tore his ACL in the preseason last year, forcing Ted Ginn, Jr. into Carolina’s No. 1 receiving role during the Broncos’ last match-up with the Panthers.
Now, Benjamin is back and the Broncos secondary will have one more weapon to battle in what is already a dynamic Carolina Panther offense
“It just gives them another talented receiver,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “Benjamin is a huge receiver. He’s as big as a tight end but he’s fast. He gives you a problem out there, one-on-one, especially against smaller corners.”
While Benjamin may be back, breakout cornerback Josh Norman is not. During the offseason, the Panthers’ rescinded a franchise tag they’d placed on the talkative defensive back who eventually signed with Washington.
During the Super Bowl, Norman held wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to just a single catch for eight yards. This time around, Thomas will go up against a different, and arguably lesser challenge.
In Norman’s stead, the Panthers have chosen to start two rookie corners. Daryl Worley, a third round pick out of West Virginia will man the right side of the field, while James Bradberry, a second-round pick from Samford will handle things on the left side.
Thomas admitted it’s hard to know exactly how the Carolina defense will play against this Broncos’ offense with so much inexperience on the field.
“It’s tough because, normally the front seven is (middle linebacker Luke) Kuechly running a lot, and most of the time it’s a lot of zone,” Thomas said. “Having so much man the last couple years, they’re going to put them in good positions where they’re going to be able to make plays. I really don’t know what they’re going to do, but we’re just going to go out and do what we have to do as an offense.”