DENVER - There has only been one game played in this NFL season and already we know so much.
Trevor Siemian is pretty good. Cam Newton is great. C.J. Anderson is a $6 million value.
Peyton Manning, John Elway and Terrell Davis are retired but can still stir a sellout crowd.
The Denver Broncos behind Siemian’s solid starting debut and Anderson’s nose for the end zone rallied to defeat Newton and the Carolina Panthers, 21-20, on a warm Thursday night to open the season at soon-to-be-renamed Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
"It was fun, it was good to play a whole game,'' said Siemian, who completed 18 of 26 for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in his first "whole" game since his senior season at Northwestern in 2014. "I'm learning, too, still.''
The Broncos had to survive a 50-yard field goal attempt by Carolina’s Graham Gano, whose kick sailed wide left with 3 seconds remaining. Gano had made the 50-yard field goal a split second after Broncos coach Gary Kubiak called a time out. When Gano made his kick, he hit the right upright and it bounced in. After a high snap, he may have overcorrected when he missed left with the kick for keeps.
"Our timeouts weren't doing us any good so I used one on them,'' Kubiak said. "We got very fortunate.''
"I just missed it,'' Gano said. "The timeout didn't affect me, it ever does. I missed the kick.''
The Broncos trailed, 17-7 entering the fourth quarter. Two Anderson touchdowns gave Denver the lead. Denver’s defense then had to overcome a questionable hands to the face penalty called on cornerback Chris Harris Jr. that turned a fourth-and-21 incompletion into a fresh set of downs for Netwon.
"All I did was try to jam him -- I think he knocked my hand up and I probably grazed his mask when he knocked my hand up," Harris said. "I never grabbed his face mask.''
After reaching the Broncos’ 32, Gano came on for the make-or-break kick. He broke.
"What do they call it? The ball don't lie,'' Harris said, laughing, referring to a basketball term when a player misses a free throw off a foul that perhaps shouldn't have been called.
The first game of the 2016 NFL season was nothing like the final game of the 2015 season. The Broncos were down most of the game largely because they had committed three turnovers to none by the Panthers.
In Super Bowl 50, Carolina was doomed by turnovers and were thwacked by the Broncos, 24-10.
But over the years, no matter how bad the Broncos have looked through three quarters, they always have a chance so long as the game is played at 5,280 feet above sea level and there is a fourth quarter left to play.
"The Denver Broncos are the defending champions for a reason," Newton said. "We came in and had an opportunity to put them away and we didn't. Coach (Ron) Rivera always says, "When you play just good enough, you play just good enough to get beat, too.''
Anderson was the offensive hero. His first touchdown was a 25-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass from Siemian. It was the first touchdown pass of Siemian’s career. On the play, Carolina put on a ferocious rush. Once Siemian got it to Anderson, there was little question Carolina's defense was caught upfield.
"I knew it was a big play if I could get it him,'' Siemian said.
"I knew I was going to score when I saw (linebacker) Thomas Davis on the line and he blitzed,'' Anderson said. "That was the look we talked about all week. I don't want to toot my own horn but I think I'm a pretty good pass protector. I looked like I was pass blocking on him and I slipped him and caught the screen and D.T. (Demaryius Thomas) actually had the big block to seal it.''
Following an interception by Harris that gave his offense the ball at the Carolina 27, Siemian and Anderson combined to finish off the short-field drive. It was Anderson, with a little help from a push by left tackle Russell Okung and pull by fullback Andy Janovich, who converted a fourth down and half-yard situation at the Carolina 1 ½ yard line. Anderson later plunged in from the 1 yard line to give the Broncos their first lead with 9:30 remaining.
Anderson finished with 139 yards from scrimmage -- 92 yards rushing on 20 carries and 47 yards receiving on four catches. In two previous seasons, Anderson started slow but was one of the league's best backs in the second half of each season. Miami tried to sign him away with a contract that will pay him $6 million this year and $3 million in 2017. The Broncos matched and Anderson is off quickly to earn it.
Siemian played well for a guy who had never played an NFL game before.
"He showed us a lot," said Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe. "I'm so proud of that guy.''
The evening began with the Broncos celebrating the Super Bowl 50 title to finish their 2015 season. First, Terrell Davis, MVP of Super Bowl XXXII, walked out with the Broncos’ first-ever Lombardi Trophy.
Then John Elway, MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII and now the Broncos’ general manager, strutted out with the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy.
And finally Von Miller, MVP of Super Bowl 50 but in the locker room during the pregame festivities, handed the newest Lombardi hardware to Manning. Dressed in his Bronco blue suit and orange tie, Manning walked the trophy out to thunderous applause.
It was a nice touch by Broncos’ public relations boss Patrick Smyth, who came up with the idea of the Super Bowl MVPs – and Manning. Not in the organizational plans was the decision of Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall to take a knee during the National Anthem. Marshall was supporting the stance of his former college teammate Colin Kaepernick.
"The message is that I'm against social injustice,'' Marshall said. "I'm not against the military, the police or America at all. I'm against social injustice and I feel like this was the right thing to do. This was the right platform. this is our only platform to really be heard.''
The Broncos' statement on Marshall: “While we encourage members of our organization to stand during the National Anthem, we understand and respect it being a personal decision.''
This was Manning’s team the previous four seasons, but now that he’s 40 and retired as a player (but keeping an incredibly busy schedule of speeches, appearances and commercials), Siemian is the new guy in charge.
A seventh-round draft pick in 2015, Siemian spent his rookie season watching Manning and Brock Osweiler play the quarterback position.
Siemian got his first chance Thursday before a nationally televised audience on NBC and 9News.
The game started promising for Siemian as he showed adjustments in the pocket while completing 7 of his first 9 passes for 77 yards. On his first two possessions, Siemian moved the Broncos from their own 25 to the Carolina 29 the first time and 16 yard line the next.
Both drives were halted by turnovers. Devontae Booker spoiled the first drive when he fumbled the ball away on his first NFL carry.
On the second drive, Siemian took a 9-yard sack and then had a screen pass tipped by defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and intercepted by linebacker Thomas Davis.
In between, Newton came through with a third-and-9 dart across the middle to Kelvin Benjamin for 17 yards. A 20-yard reverse run by Ted Ginn Jr. set up a 14-yard touchdown rope from Newton to Benjamin.
The 6-foot-5 Benjamin was well-covered by the 5-foot-10 Harris but height has a way of getting a guy open.
"I don't think I'll see a receiver that big the rest of the year,'' Harris said. "I'm glad I got it over with.''
Benjamin, by the way, didn’t play in Super Bowl 50. He suffered a torn ACL in a mid-August practice last year.
Finally on their third drive, the Broncos’ offense were able to hang on to the ball. And they scored. As Bronco fans have seen the past two preseasons, Siemian is unflappable. He came right back after the disappointing end to the first two possessions by throwing a 15-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders along the right sideline.
Anderson then took off on a 28-yard run around left end and into Carolina territory. After a Siemian scramble picked up 8 yards, the Broncos were facing third-and-1 at the 28.
Carolina’s defense was geared up either for a handoff to Booker, who was lined up in the I formation, or a play-action pass. Siemian instead stuffed a handoff into fullback Andy Janovich, who bounced outside and ran into the clear.
"When's the last time we ran a fullback dive in this offense?'' Siemian said.
At about the 5 yard line, Janovich put both arms around the ball as added protection, but there was no need.
"I thought for sure someone was coming,'' Janovich said. "I'm not the fastest guy in the world. I thought for sure someone was coming behind me trying to strip it.''
He rambled into the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown on his first NFL carry.
"Very surprising,'' Janovich said. "I was just trying to get one yard. For it to bounce like that -- that's something people joke about but are never serious about.''
Newton, though, came back on the next series to patiently lead an 18-play, 89-yard drive that took 9 minutes and 15 seconds. The Panthers converted five third downs on the drive with none more impressive than Newton escaping a sack attempt by blitzing safety T.J. Ward and flipping a 13-yard completion to tight end Greg Olsen to the Broncos’ 22.
"We were terrible today,'' Harris said of the Denver defense. "This wasn't our standard on third down. There was communication (problems) from the players, from the coaches. Everybody was scrambling. That's not how you want it.''
The Broncos' defense was twice flagged for having too many men on the field.
Newton connected with Olsen again to set up first and goal from 4. When Newton ran it in for a touchdown, he set an NFL record.
It was Newton’s 44th rushing touchdown, the most ever by an NFL quarterback. Steve Young held the record with 43, which he got in 169 games.
Newton has only played in 79 games. He was under constant attack in this game, getting hit several times, but he still completed 18 of 33 for 194 yards with a touchdown pass and ran 11 times for 54 yards with another touchdown. He was also spotted flossing his teeth on the bench in the third quarter.
"I was eating oranges at halftime,'' Newton explained.
"Cam's a great quarterback," Harris said. "I love Cam. He's one of my favorite players. The way he ran the ball today, he played with swagger. I can definitely see the improvement he made from the Super Bowl. We might see him again.''
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