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Trevor Siemian was better than 2015 Peyton Manning, and the Broncos are 1-0

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Trevor Siemian wasn’t great against the Panthers. But he doesn’t need to be great. He just needs to be not disastrous, and he wasn’t Thursday night.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Trevor Siemian led the Denver Broncos to a comeback victory in his first NFL start.

It was Siemian who threw a modestly accurate screen pass that allowed C.J. Anderson to sprint, wind and eventually power his way into the end zone for a critical late score. He was cheering, and it was presumably his voice that soared above the rest to inspire the Broncos defense to intercept a fourth quarter Cam Newton pass to set the team up with great field position for a go-ahead touchdown.

And cameras captured Siemian late in the game breathing on the eastern sideline at Sport Authority Field — but he wasn’t just breathing. Sometimes, he exhaled. Other times, he would switch it up and inhale. He was changing on the fly, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Siemian’s unpredictable strategy caused the critical air movement that pushed Graham Gano’s game-winning field goal attempt wide left, sealing a Denver victory.

When I’m done building a statue of Trevor Siemian, a magnificent throwgod blessing us with the majesty of his arm, I will acknowledge that he didn’t exactly play a great game. He was 18 of 26 for 178 yards with two interceptions and a touchdown pass that looked so much like a running play that the NFL forgot to include it on a highlight reel supposedly including all of Siemian’s passes.

He showed he has the ability to make some good throws — look at this pretty sideline route downfield leading to a gorgeous catch by Emmanuel Sanders.

I expected the Broncos to prevent Siemian from having to do pretty much anything Thursday night. This was a historically weird scenario. Siemian, a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be a seventh-round pick, had never thrown an NFL pass before. And yet he was the starter for the Super Bowl champs against the team they played in the Super Bowl — one of the most fearsome defenses in the NFL. I’d have asked him to hand the ball off 100,000 times.

Instead, the Broncos asked him to pass on the first five plays from scrimmage. Most of his passes on the night were short, quick stuff — stuff where he didn’t have to think — but Siemian also had a few completions on passes 10-to-15 yards downfield. Siemian looked good at identifying seams in zone coverage and hitting them, like on the above timing route to Sanders.

And hey, look at this pass downfield.

Is it perfect? -- no, it’s behind Sanders, and if it was in front of him, he might’ve had some room to run. But it’s a completion! Completions are good!

As one of the world’s 14 Northwestern football fans, I watched Siemian in college. I never foresaw him being able to approach competence in the NFL. (Heck, he was arguably not that competent in college.) Neither did most scouts, analysts, NFL teams and even Siemian himself said he didn’t expect to be drafted.

But last night he displayed the ability to be a nearly okay NFL quarterback for the majority of an NFL game against a very good NFL team. That’s WILD. Very few college quarterbacks are able to do that. A lot of NFL quarterbacks aren’t able to do that. I don’t know how Siemian came this far, and I don’t know how the Broncos identified that Siemian was capable of coming this far, but congrats to both Siemian and the Broncos.

Siemian also showed he has the ability to make some bad throws. Most NFL quarterbacks make this touchdown throw, with a wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide open tight end off a perfectly executed play action. Here, Siemian nearly threw an interception, tossing the ball into the extended mitts of Kony Ealy.

Siemian has made that throw before. It was the play off of which he got his only touchdown of the preseason, and perhaps the only play the Broncos felt comfortable asking Siemian to make in a goal line situation. But in a live game against a good opponent, it didn’t go very well. (Denver eventually ran the ball into the end zone.)

Siemian was flustered against the Panthers’ powerful pass rush, which was to be expected from a newbie starter. He threw both of his interceptions due to QB pressure — one straight into the line, tipped up and picked off, one downfield as he tossed the ball up to avoid a sack, a pass that never had a hope of getting to its intended receiver.

If we consider QB rating to be a roughly acceptable determinant of whether a QB played well, Siemian’s first game got a 69.1. Extrapolated to a whole season, that would’ve made him the 33rd-best QB in the NFL last season, the fourth-worst amongst qualifying QBs.

But you know who was worse than that? Peyton Manning, whose 67.9 was second-to-last.

Siemian’s meh night would’ve been one of the best of Manning’s 2015 campaign. In 13 games, Manning only managed a higher completion rating than Siemian’s debut twice. And he threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns for an entire season. It would stand to reason that against less fearsome defenses, Siemian’s not-so-great TD-to-interception ratio might even out a bit.

Manning was perhaps the best quarterback in NFL history, and part of his legacy will be that he won the Super Bowl in his final career game. The Peyton Manning Official Career Storybook (presented by Papa John’s, Nationwide, Budweiser and DirecTV) has a beautiful ending, with Manning at the reins of a Bronco-driven chariot galloping off into the heavens.

But, well, he was bad. He went 13-for-23 with 141 yards and a pick in that Super Bowl. Von Miller haunted Cam Newton’s soul during the game — judging from last night, I think he’s still haunting it — so the Broncos got the W. But Manning’s contribution was that he was merely mediocre, and not disastrous.

Against more or less the same Panthers defense, Siemian showed that he too can be mediocre, and not disastrous. His stats were roughly the same as Manning’s Super Bowl performance. His arm maybe showed perhaps a little bit more zip than the laser rocket-turned-BB gun Manning carried into action last year.

Siemian will never be Peyton Manning. Manning’s an instant Hall of Famer. I might not even induct Trevor Siemian into the Hall of Players I Liked Watching When I Attended Northwestern. (The Mike Kafka wing has some space for new plaques, but if I let Siemian in there, I’m really lowering my bar.)

But Siemian doesn’t need to be Manning. He needs to be roughly equivalent to Manning on last year’s Broncos, a ship stocked enough firepower to blow virtually any opponent out of the water, even if the captain was periodically drunk or asleep.

Plenty of catastrophes could’ve befallen a QB of Siemian’s stature against a defense as destructive as Carolina’s. But he showed he’s capable of avoiding them. And if he can do that 15 more times, the Broncos will probably be good enough around him to make the playoffs.

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