When the Carolina Panthers travel to Denver to kick off the 2016 NFL season against the Broncos on Thursday, they'll do so as 3-point favorites to win on the road. That should be your first clue that this isn't just a Super Bowl 50 rematch.
The Broncos beat the Panthers in the Super Bowl just seven months ago, but the game was more lopsided than even the 24-10 score suggests. The Panthers held Peyton Manning to just 141 passing yards, but the three fumbles Carolina's offense lost to Denver made it difficult for the Panthers to stay competitive in the Super Bowl.
This year's Panthers are ready to move on, and when they take the field, they'll see a slightly different Broncos team. For the first time, the defending Super Bowl champions will have a starter who has never attempted a pass under center. Manning retired in the offseason, and Trevor Siemian, in his second year in the league, won the starting job.
The Panthers still have their all-star quarterback, who was heavily criticized for his sloppy play in the Super Bowl and for walking out of the postgame presser. But for Cam Newton, this isn't an opportunity for revenge. A win on Thursday won't change anything about the way last season ended for the Panthers. This is a new season, and it's an opportunity for Carolina to start strong.
"I'm so focused on the lead-up to our game on Thursday. I can't look back," Newton said. "A lot of people are going to make it a rematch, but it's not a rematch. It's just our next opponent."
Newton was named the league's MVP last season, and despite disrupting his game viciously in the Super Bowl, Von Miller believes the hype surrounding Newton. He also thinks the Panthers will present a tougher challenge for the Broncos this time around.
"In my opinion, we're going to see the same championship type of team from the Carolina Panthers," Miller said. "They only lost two games last year. They had plenty of opportunities to win the (Super Bowl) last year. They just didn't execute."
Miller is back -- and with a big pay raise -- but the fearsome Denver defense lost Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan during free agency. The Panthers are also down a playmaker on defense. After they rescinded cornerback Josh Norman's franchise tag, he signed with Washington. On Thursday night, head coach Ron Rivera might start Daryl Worley and James Bradberry, two rookie cornerbacks.
The front seven remains formidable for the Panthers, though, thanks to stalwarts line Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak called them "exceptional."
"Their front seven is as good as I've ever coached yet, " Kubiak said.
On offense, Newton is a special player, but he obviously doesn't do it alone. Last season, tight end Greg Olsen stepped up as the team's leading receiver. The Panthers also welcome wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back to the field after he spent the 2015 season on injured reserve due to a torn ACL. Carolina returns the starters along the offensive line from 2015, who protected Newton admirably during the regular season and helped pave the way for the team's 2,036 yards on the ground last season.
Both coaches insisted that they were living in the present, with Kubiak saying that there were a "lot of different things going on with both football teams." Rivera also said that he's not looking back at the Super Bowl loss. He's looking forward to Thursday's matchup against Denver, and he quoted legendary coach John Madden to express his perspective.
"The past is for cowards and losers," Rivera said.
This game marks the first Super Bowl rematch on kick off weekend since 1970, when the Kansas City Chiefs faced the Minnesota Vikings to start the season. The Chiefs beat the Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV, but the Vikings won the Week 1 rematch 27-10. The Panthers will look to do the same against the Broncos on Thursday and put the Super Bowl loss behind them.