The Denver Broncos rekindled memories of Super Bowl 50.
But it was another 50 that would haunt the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night — a miss by kicker Graham Gano on a 50-yard field-goal attempt that fluttered wide left and preserved a 21-20 victory for the Broncos in the NFL’s Kickoff Opener before a roaring, orange-clad crowd at Sports Authority Field.
Once again, as was the case seven months ago, it was Denver’s punishing defense that closed in on Carolina’s Cam Newton, the NFL’s most valuable player last season who scored two touchdowns in the first half but was relentlessly under siege in the second. He was sacked three times, pummeled several more.
On the other side was second-year Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian, who had never taken a snap in a regular-season game. He looked calm and composed, completing 18 of 26 passes for 178 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown to C.J. Anderson on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit.
With Peyton Manning retired — he spent part of Thursday night in the NBC broadcast booth — and Brock Osweiler in Houston, Siemian beat out veteran Mark Sanchez and first-round pick Paxton Lynch to claim the starting job.
Although Siemian, a seventh-round pick last year, looked remarkably at ease, he conceded, “There’s butterflies every time you play. Something’s wrong with you if you don’t [get them]. But I’m just super confident in the guys we have offensively, lot of vets, lot of great leadership I can lean on.”
It was Anderson who scored both Denver touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the second on a one-yard run that would give the home team a 21-17 edge.
With 4 minutes 21 seconds to play, Gano trimmed the deficit to 21-20, and a subsequent three-and-out by Denver gave the Panthers a chance to win.
The Broncos clamped down on Newton, however, sacking him twice in three plays and putting Carolina in a fourth-and-21 hole from its 29. It looked hopeless for the Panthers, especially when Newton’s desperation pass fell incomplete.
Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. made a critical error on the play, however. He was flagged for illegal hands to the face, giving the Panthers an automatic first down and new life. For the packed house, it was 76,000 hands to the forehead.
Newton, who absorbed some brutal hits on the drive, connected on passes to tight end Greg Olsen and receiver Kelvin Benjamin, moving the Panthers into field-goal range. With nine seconds remaining, Gano missed his kick and an entire city exhaled.
In a sense, the Broncos picked up where they left off last season, when 11 of their 15 victories were by a touchdown or less.
“That was our whole model last season, winning close games,” said Anderson, who finished with a game-high 92 yards in 20 carries. “It’s not like we haven’t been in a dogfight before. We’ve got to bring along our rookies. `You’re not going to win 45-0 like in college. That’s not going to happen anymore.’”
The night began and ended with a raucous celebration. Before kickoff, three Broncos greats walked the franchise’s three Lombardi Trophies onto the field —Terrell Davis, followed by John Elway, followed by Manning. With each, the crowd got increasingly louder.
Minutes later, during the national anthem, Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall kneeled in protest, following the lead of his college teammate Colin Kaepernick, whose refusal to stand for the anthem triggered a national controversy and discussion.
The actual game was somewhat eventful for Marshall, too, as he was evaluated for a concussion in the first half and launched himself at Newton with a helmet-to-helmet hit that wasn’t flagged but could get him fined.
So cool under pressure was Newton that TV cameras caught him flossing his teeth on the sideline. In the end, though, Denver’s defense must have felt like oral surgery without anesthetic.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who sacked Newton on Carolina’s final drive, was asked if the Panthers seemed especially determined to stop him.
“Yes, I noticed it,” he said. “They did a good job of chipping and double-teaming me, but we knew they couldn’t play a whole game like that. Eventually it opened up for us, and we were able to get back there.”
Olsen was focused more on the big picture than the season-opening loss.
“It’s one game,” he said. “Our only goal that’s not on the table is we can’t win them all. ... This didn’t come down to one kick, on drive, or one pass. This was a collective loss on the team.”