Carolina Panthers (0-0) at Denver Broncos (0-0)
The 2016 NFL season starts exactly the same way the 2015 NFL season ended, with the Panthers facing the Broncos. Unlike last year, this is not the Super Bowl, but this game still could have major playoff implications and it’s an early litmus test for both of these teams to see how good they actually are, or are not. In last year’s neutral site Super Bowl, I chose the Panthers as 4.5 point favorites. Even though they lost, they actually moved the ball better than the Broncos did in that game. The Broncos obviously had the splash plays that won the game, but they had more 3rd down failures (13) than first downs (11), moving the chains at a 48.00% rate, as opposed to 62.48% for the Panthers. The Broncos won the league’s ultimate prize, but if that game were played 100 times the Panthers likely would have won more often than the Broncos.
That theory will be put to the test a little bit more this week, with the Panthers now visiting the Broncos. Of course, these are not the same teams as last season. The Panthers lost #1 cornerback Josh Norman in free agency and need Cam Newton to continue playing at the level he played at last season, even though last season was easily the best of his career. He’ll have top receiver Kelvin Benjamin back, but the Panthers are unlikely to be as good as they were last season.
The same is very much true of the Broncos, who lost talented defensive starters Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan on defense and Evan Mathis on offense and did little to replace any of them. They’ll also be starting a 2015 7th round pick who has never thrown a pass in his career at quarterback in Trevor Siemian. Neither of their quarterbacks played well last season, but Siemian is as unqualified as week 1 starters come and could be even worse than both Osweiler and Manning. Both teams lost talent this off-season, but the Broncos had the worse off-season.
On top of that, the Panthers, despite how the season ended, played a lot better than the Broncos did overall last season. They won 10 games (including the post-season) by more than a touchdown last season, while the Broncos won just 4. In fact, the Broncos went 11-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including a 3-0 record in overtime. If a few things had gone differently, they might not have even made the playoffs, let alone won the Super Bowl. In order to finish 12-4 again, the Broncos are likely going to have to be significantly better this season, which doesn’t seem likely considering all they did was lose talent this off-season.
The Panthers are unlikely to win 15 games again, but who does? They still figure to be one of the best teams in the league, while Denver could easily struggle to make the playoffs. The Panthers finished last season 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential, while the Broncos finished 11th. That gap could easily be even wider this season. I don’t mind laying the field goal with the Panthers here on the road. There’s not quite enough for me to put money on this, especially since the Panthers are a heavily public backed road favorite in a nationally televised game against an opponent who is getting their Super Bowl rings, but the Panthers are the pick here.
Carolina Panthers 20 Denver Broncos 13
Pick against the spread: Carolina -3