Cam Newton took plenty of shots after the Super Bowl — for not diving on a loose ball, for not having an MVP-type game, for not talking afterward.
But Thursday night, the shots he took were strictly from the Broncos, and some of them were even legal.
The Broncos again got plenty of hits on the reigning MVP in the 21-20 win in the regular season opener, echoing the result of Super Bowl 50 if not the style.
Newton took a savage beating over the course of the night, but still had his team in position to win, as Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal which would have won it.
The Panthers quarterback took a number of helmet-to-helmet hits, including three during the third quarter alone. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall can probably look forward to a letter from the league asking for a donation for his, since he launched himself. The fourth obvious one, on safety Darian Stewart, was nullified late by an intentional grounding call.
The Broncos were able to win a title by roughing Newton up in Santa Clara, and he was clearly struggling in the second half as the punishment added up. How he finished a game is a testament to his toughness, though he might be paying the price for this one for weeks.
Here are five more things we learned during the opening night Thursday edition of Sunday Night Football:
1. It’s too early to pull the plug on the Trevor Siemian experiment, of course. (Right?)
But the former Northwestern quarterback looked overmatched at moments of his first professional start. Granted, having to make that start against Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and one of the best defenses in football doesn’t help. But there were a number of ill-advised throws that made you wonder how many he’d actually get.
The Broncos survived a physically deficient Peyton Manning last year, but Manning was also mentally alert enough to not throw certain passes (like the floater in the face of a blitz that was picked off in the third quarter). If Siemian becomes more careful with the ball, he can hang around and keep the job for a while, at least until first-rounder Paxton Lynch is ready.
He was better as the game went on, and as Gary Kubiak’s hand-picked starter, he’s going to get chances to keep the job.
2. The Panthers were willing to play their young cornerbacks off the ball, for a few reasons.
One, they’re playing a pair of rookies after letting Josh Norman go to Washington after they rescinded the franchise tag. They used second and third-round picks on corners, and surrounded them with a collection of spare parts and journeymen (such as former fifth-round Bene Benwikere).
But that’s kind of what Norman was, a former fifth-round pick who needed three years to become trustworthy.
The Panthers knew there was a risk of the kids being overwhelmed if they tried to cover Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders alone, so they didn’t put them in those positions. And Benwikere came up with a third-quarter interception (timing his jump nicely to grab a blitz-hurried pass), the kind of contribution he’s going to need to make as the de facto leader at the position.
3. If there was an underrated aspect to the Panthers’ loss in the Super Bowl, it was the early injury to running back Jonathan Stewart which kept him from playing a big role.
He finished that game with 12 carries for 29 yards. Thursday, he had 15 carries for 59 yards, and was available throughout.
Not having Stewart available in the Super Bowl made Newton the best rushing threat they had, and took away the threat of the read option. It also put the ball in Mike Tolbert’s hands more often, and the veteran fullback had a rare fumble.,
Stewart has never been the most durable back in the league, but he’s explosive and physical, and when he’s in the game, it makes a huge difference in Newton’s ability to be “just a quarterback.”
4. The Broncos have a huge home field advantage, and the noise contributed to the Panthers burning timeouts in both halves.
That led to some unorthodox/sloppy decisions by the Panthers throughout the game.
They’re not the cleanest team in the league in terms of clock management, but Ron Rivera’s not Andy Reid either.
5. Panthers guard Trai Turner was flagged for taunting after the first touchdown of the game, for a not-over-the-top move.
He hopped up and down behind Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, an unnecessary but not menacing move.
It’s only notable because it was the first such penalty called this season, which would have resulted in an ejection if repeated. If the first victim of that new rule has one as thin as that one, coaches and players alike are going to howl.