Troy Renck: Take 5. 'It's Time' Panthers v. Broncos

First rematch of SB teams in Week 1 since 1970

DENVER -- Trevor Siemian joked with teammate Matt Paradis, then peeked above his locker at the clock on Tuesday. It was time for a meeting. It is now time for The Meeting. Seven months after the Broncos boxed the Panthers' ears in Super Bowl 50, Denver returns home to honor its accomplishment and pull the lid off the 2016 season. 

The Broncos have asked fans to be seated by 6 p.m. to enjoy the championship moment. Do I expect new banners to be unfurled honoring the Broncos' three Super Bowl title teams? Yes, I do. The buzz surrounding this game makes it feel like the postseason. It's not. It's one game, but its meaning carries significance for the Broncos. 

They begin as 3-point underdogs. 

"Let 'em fuel the fire," defensive end Derek Wolfe said. 

Crowed safety T.J. Ward, "We will be the antagonizers. We are in our house. We will do what we want to do."

The Broncos desire is to win their 15th home opener in the last 16 years. My Take 5 look at the keys to the game.

1) QB or not QB? Let Trevor Siemian play

The balance becomes clear. Siemian must balance taking chances with taking care of the ball. The Broncos can't win if Siemian turns the ball over more than once. And they will lose if he doesn't convert shots down the field and on misdirection plays against Carolina's rookie cornerbacks.

The Carolina Panthers will pack eight and nine players in the box and force Siemian to beat them. He has the talent to pull if off, but can he do it in the glare of a spotlight? He will have the freedom to audible, a sign of respect. Coach Gary Kubiak's trust in Siemian is obvious. He made it an open quarterback competition, eschewing Mark Sanchez's experience as a deciding factor. Siemian played more consistently from April until last week. He impressed Kubiak on a number of levels: his ability to process information and translate it, his command of the huddle and his response to adversity (he led a touchdown drive after his worst pass of the preseason against the San Francisco 49ers).  

History taunts Siemian. The Broncos are the first defending champion to start a quarterback in the season opener who has never thrown an NFL pass. No Northwestern quarterback has started a season opener since Otto Graham in 1955. Siemian is an odd choice in every way. But given how adroitly Kubiak handled the quarterback situation last year, he has earned the benefit of the doubt.

2) Stay patient with the run

Keep the Pepto-Bismol within arms reach. The Broncos will run the ball, sometimes with no success. Possibly several times. But they must remain patient with the ground game and C.J. Anderson, who is in a much better position to get off to a fast start physically than last year. It sets up gains later, especially at altitude in week one. It also creates openings for misdirection pass plays on bootlegs. Getting tight end Virgil Green involved is critical. He won't be open if the Broncos don't remain committed to the run.

3) Contain Cam? Stop the run

Cam Newton dissolved before the Panthers' eyes in the Super Bowl. He couldn't find room to operate, finishing 18 of 41 passing with three turnovers. It was his worst completion percentage since 2014. The problem? The league's most dynamic offense became predictable. Jonathan Stewart hurt his ankle five minutes into the game. On the next play, Von Miller strip-sacked Newton, leading to a touchdown. Stewart finished with 27 yards on his next 11 carries. 

"Stopping the run is always our top priority," Ward said. If the Broncos stymie Carolina on the ground, they will consistently win matchups in the passing game.

4) Beware of DWare

The NFL Films productions on the Broncos championship season lived up to the billing on Wednesday. Terrific stuff from behind the curtain. I learned Von Miller thought he tore the ACL in his left knee on pass coverage in the Super Bowl, but proved fine. And that Peyton Manning, expected at the game tonight, has a fantastic way of sending a message to his coaches through sign language to show he's healthy.

I also discovered how important Malik Jackson was in the AFC Championship Game. He told DeMarcus Ware he would occupy the guard and to go get the quarterback. Ware never stopped in the playoffs. He was a wrecking ball. Can he pull that off in 35 plays tonight without Jackson? Ware hasn't played since the Super Bowl. But his impact is huge. The Panthers couldn't block Von Miller on Twitter let alone in the Super Bowl. There's no way they are going to let him ruin their game plan again. It puts the onus on Ware (or Shane Ray) to enjoy a big game.

5) Just Win (Ugly), Baby

The Broncos won more games by seven points or less last season than any team in NFL history. They are grinders. They throw punches, protect their body, and land a standing eight count in the final round. It only works with strong special teams. Kicker Brandon McManus went 5-for-8 in the preseason. He said he's fine, that he was adjusting to a camp with no competition for the first time in his career. He made 30 of 35 kicks last season. They need a duplicate performance on special teams. It must come with a new punter and long snapper. Change is inevitable. But there are no excuses in the NFL. If the Broncos keep the game close, they should win with McManus -- even with an inexperienced quarterback.

MY PREDICTION: Broncos 20, Panthers 17

 

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