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Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos Preview and Prediction

Cam Newton

Cam Newton

The 2016 NFL season will pick up right where it left off with a highly anticipated Week 1 rematch of Super Bowl 50, the first of its kind since 1970. Sports Authority Field at Mile High will serve as the backdrop for the Thursday night season opener as the Denver Broncos play host to the Carolina Panthers.

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The Broncos were able to bring Carolina’s dream season to an end with a stellar defensive performance that led to an emphatic win in Super Bowl 50. Denver would like nothing more than to validate that victory by beating the Panthers once again to kick off the new season.

For the Panthers, it is all about redemption. Carolina head coach Ron Rivera has downplayed the revenge factor for this matchup, as have the players, but it is difficult to believe that payback is not at the forefront of their minds.

The stakes may not be as high this time around, but there is plenty on the line in tonight’s big season opener. Despite the fact that these two teams have a relatively brief history against one another, with just five prior meetings dating back to 1997, this game certainly has a rivalry feel to it.

Carolina at Denver

Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 8 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV: NBC

Spread: Carolina -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Trevor Siemian

It took an odd twist of events for Siemian to ultimately end up as the Broncos' Week 1 starter at quarterback, but low and behold here we are. Other than a so-so college career at Northwestern and a few preseason NFL snaps, very little is known about the former seventh-round draft pick. While no one can replace the experience and leadership of a Peyton Manning, Siemian does possess some physical tools that Manning lacked at the end of his career. He also appears to have earned the confidence of head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager John Elway, which speaks volumes.

In spite of the Broncos' confidence in their new signal-caller, Siemian probably won’t be asked to do too much in his first career start. And while he will be tested by a stingy Carolina front seven on defense, it bodes well that the Panthers may have two rookie cornerbacks making their first NFL starts as well. Regardless, Siemian will have his work cut out for him.

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2. The Panthers' Offensive Line

The Panthers' offensive line, led by Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner, proved to be one of the biggest reasons for Carolina’s overwhelming success most of last season. Unfortunately, that was not the case in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos' defense managed to exploit the Carolina front in every way possible, leading to seven sacks for 68 yards and four critical turnovers.

The same starting five up front from Super Bowl 50 will be on the field tonight. That includes RT Mike Remmers, who couldn’t stop Super Bowl MVP Von Miller to save his life in the last meeting. This has to be a legitimate concern for Carolina. While Denver may have some new faces on defense, Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who combined for 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in Super Bowl 50, are still in Bronco uniforms.

The Panthers'  offensive line is by no means void of talent, but it will require a much better effort, combined with a much better game plan, to slow down the Denver pass rush. If those two things fail to materialize, Miller and company will wreak havoc on this group once again.

3. Plenty of New Faces

While this game has been billed as a rematch of Super Bowl 50, the personnel on the field will look quite a bit different this time around. Many of the key players are still around, but there also will be plenty of new faces to keep an eye on. There also will be some pretty big shoes to fill.

Siemian replacing a future Hall of Famer at quarterback is the most glaring, but the Broncos' overhauled offensive line is quite notable as well, new starting tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson in particular. Additionally, Virgil Green replacing Owen Daniels at tight end is worth keeping an eye on. On defense, DL Jared Crick and ILB Todd Davis will attempt to fill the shoes of two key difference-makers in DL Malik Jackson and ILB Danny Trevathan.

The Panthers have plenty of continuity on offense, returning their entire starting 11 from Super Bowl 50. Star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin also is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, which should pay huge dividends for Cam Newton and the passing game. Carolina also returns most of its key players in the front seven on defense. However, the same cannot be said about the secondary, which took a huge hit with the loss of lockdown, All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. The Panthers' new-look secondary will feature three new starters, including a pair of rookie cornerbacks in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley.

Final Analysis

Look for the Denver Broncos to employ a very similar strategy to the one that helped them win Super Bowl 50: a game plan that relies heavily on running the football and playing stellar defense. Running backs C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker will need to come up big to take the heat off of the passing game. The Broncos' revamped offensive line will need to play a huge role in that regard as well. New starting quarterback Trevor Siemian cannot be counted on to try to win this game on his own, but he must avoid critical mistakes that will lose the game.

NFL Power Rankings: Panthers

The key for the Panthers starts up front with their offensive line. They cannot afford to have a repeat performance of Super Bowl 50. Cam Newton doesn’t require much time to work his magic, but the line cannot turn into Swiss cheese again if the passing game is to gain traction. While the Panthers probably won’t keep the Broncos out of the backfield for the entire game, they should have a better scheme in place to minimize mistakes and blown assignments this time around. Defensively, the Panthers will likely try to attack the run first and foremost, but they will definitely do their best to rattle Siemian early and often as well.

While the Broncos have proven that they can win games with little help from their offense, there are just too many question marks with so many new faces on that side of the ball. Siemian as an unproven, first-time starter at quarterback alone provides a substantial advantage for a star-studded Carolina defense. This game also will come down to effort and which team wants it more. In that case, the edge has to go to the Panthers as well. They have had this date circled on their calendar for a long time, and I expect a much better performance from their offense this time around. The Broncos' defense will keep it close, but the Panthers will be poised to get their revenge.

Prediction: Panthers 24, Broncos 17

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.