Graham Gano pushed a 50-yard field-goal attempt wide left with 4 seconds left, enabling the Denver Broncos to escape with a thrilling 21-20 victory over the Carolina Panthers to open the 2016 NFL season Thursday night.
Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian kneeled down in the victory formation following Gano’s miss to run out the clock and clinch an impressive comeback win in his first NFL start, much to the delight of the sold-out Sports Authority Field at Mile High crowd.
Siemian’s only previous NFL snap was also a kneel-down play — against the Steelers last December.
The lid-lifter of the season was billed as a rematch of last season’s Super Bowl 50, and turned out to be a much more entertaining game than the 24-10 contest that netted the Broncos their third Lombardi Trophy back in February.
It marked the first time in 46 years that the two teams who met in the previous year’s Super Bowl played each other on the opening weekend of the following season (Kansas City vs. Minnesota in 1970).
For much of the game it appeared the Panthers might exact a small measure of revenge on the strength of a superb first-half performance by Cam Newton. The reigning NFL MVP directed Carolina to a 17-7 lead at the half with a touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin in the first quarter followed by and a touchdown run of his own in the second quarter from 2 yards out.
It was the 44th rushing touchdown of Newton’s career, breaking the previous NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback held by Hall of Famer Steve Young. It also marked the 32nd game in Newton’s career in which he had both a rushing a passing touchdown, breaking another of Young’s long-standing records.
Newton finished the game with 194 yards passing and another 54 yards on the ground, but after avoiding the lethal Broncos pass rush for most of the first half with short drop backs and quick releases, the Denver defense started catching up with him after halftime.
The Panthers maintained the 10-point margin through the third quarter despite several hard hits on Newton – including several to the helmet that didn’t draw penalties — before the Broncos polished off an eight-play, 78-yard drive on the first play of the fourth with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Siemian to C.J. Anderson.
The beautifully designed screen pass came on first-and-10 as Anderson faked a block on a blitzing Thomas Davis, leaked out to the left flat and took Siemian’s dump-off pass down the field just outside the numbers, crossing the plane of the end zone as he was tackled at the stripe.
It was the first career touchdown pass for Siemian, who entered the contest as the first quarterback in NFL history to start a season opener for a defending Super Bowl champion with no touchdowns.
Anderson’s impressive catch-and-run halted Carolina’s momentum, and then a diving interception by cornerback Chris Harris Jr. on Newton’s first pass on the ensuing possession completely turned the tide. The pick by Harris gave the Broncos the ball at the Panthers’ 23-yard line and set up the go-ahead score. It took 10 plays, but Denver grabbed a 21-17 lead on Anderson’s second touchdown of the game, as he pushed it across from the 1-yard line.
Anderson finished with 139 yards from scrimmage in addition to the pair of touchdowns. It marked his first career game in which he had both a rushing and receiving score. His 20 carries for 92 yards mirrored the 23-carry, 90-yard effort against Carolina in the Super Bowl. He now has six rushing touchdowns in his last six home games (including playoffs).
Rookie fullback Andy Janovich was responsible for Denver’s only other touchdown, as he took a handoff 28 yards to the end zone on his very first NFL carry in the second quarter.
Both teams will now have some time off before playing again in 10 days. The Broncos will host the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 18 while the Panthers open their home schedule against the 49ers.