by Scott Kacsmar
After waiting seven long months for the 2016 season to begin, we were treated to an entertaining game you could have pulled right out of Denver's 2015 film vault. There were three early turnovers, all coming inside the Carolina 30. The Broncos had three comeback wins from a double-digit deficit in 2015, and trailed 17-7 at halftime here. Before you knew it, C.J. Anderson was breaking long runs, the defense made a highlight-worthy interception, and Denver had rallied back to take the lead. Even when it looked like defeat was imminent, the defense stood tall and the Broncos caught a break on a missed field goal with four seconds left in the 21-20 win.
What a season opener, but it could have fit anywhere in Denver's 2015 Super Bowl journey. Last year the Broncos led the NFL with six fourth-quarter comebacks and/or game-winning drives in the regular season before adding a seventh in the playoffs against Pittsburgh. Historically, teams with six such wins in a season win 66.7 percent of their game-winning drive opportunities, but only 40.0 percent in the following season.
But these Broncos are 1-0, and even with the unremarkable Trevor Siemian at quarterback, the script is all too familiar. Carolina would have to agree. Much like in Super Bowl 50, the turning point was Denver's edge pressure getting to Cam Newton. While there was no fumble this time, a sack by DeMarcus Ware and hit to the helmet from nemesis Von Miller halfway through the third quarter left Newton in pain. Newton started the second half 1-for-8 in success rate as the Broncos regained control of the game. This is the first time since Week 11 of the 2012 season against Tampa Bay that Carolina lost after leading by double digits in the fourth quarter.
Denver's Comeback: Ride the Siemian?
Some of the praise for Siemian's first start has been borderline comical, but it really is a case of "he wasn't as horrible as we expected." C.J. Anderson was the true star of the night with 139 yards from scrimmage, including a 25-yard touchdown on a screen pass to start the fourth quarter. That cut the deficit to 17-14, then Denver just happened to get one of those tipped balls that turns into an interception at the most opportune of moments. Chris Harris made the play, just getting his elbows under the ball before it touched the ground for an incompletion.
Only 23 yards away from the lead, Siemian went back to flirting with disaster. His pass for Demaryius Thomas could have been thrown quicker to avoid leading him into a hit, though Thomas still had it in his hands here. The ball dangerously popped into the air, and in the way Denver gets some crazy turnovers, you have to wonder if this is a Carolina pick if that No. 24 in the picture was still cornerback Josh Norman instead of rookie James Bradberry.
Siemian's next pass was a minus-1 ALEX throw on third down, but a bad spot by the officials led to some bad game management by Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. The timeout usages were poor all night in this one, but calling a timeout to debate challenging a play is lunacy. You could lose two timeouts if the challenge fails in that case. Just throw the red flag right away if you are thinking about it instead of using a timeout. This would come back to haunt the Panthers.
Gary Kubiak had a fairly easy decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the 2-yard line. The goal is to win the game, not tie it. There may be a certain time where the field goal is the right call, but not with 10:46 left. Anderson converted and eventually scored the touchdown after Siemian had another pass nearly tipped and intercepted on an athletic play by Kony Ealy. Siemian had Virgil Green completely wide open in the end zone off a play-action fake and missed the throw. There are definitely some growing pains here with Siemian. The rest of his night included a pretty bad four-minute offense attempt where he missed a throw and took another sack. Denver survived a tough Carolina trip with its new quarterback, but things will have to get better here.
Carolina's Failed Comeback: That Denver Pass Rush
Trailing for the first time in the game, Newton finally made some plays in the half, but Carolina's drive stalled in the red zone. With 4:25 left and a fourth-and-5, it is hard to fault Rivera for kicking the 36-yard field goal. You have to expect to get the ball back in that situation, and it would only be a 1-point game.
Sure enough, Carolina forced the three-and-out drive, and had great field position at its own 40 with 3:06 left. Even just 25 yards gives the kicker a reasonable shot at a go-ahead field goal. Instead, the Panthers made this drive look as hard as pulling teeth. A false start and sack was not a good way to begin things. Von Miler had a quiet night with a lot of attention paid to him, but game on the line, he may have triggered some PTSD for Mike Remmers with a speed move for a sack to bring up fourth-and-21 at the two-minute warning. Newton's pass fell incomplete, but a penalty on Chris Harris for illegal use of hands to the face gave Carolina an automatic first down. The contact happened very briefly, but while there is no definitive proof yet, it sure looks possible that Kelvin Benjamin's left hand was in Harris' face at the same time. Either call it on both or leave it alone.
4th-and-21 flag: Looks possible that KB's left hand was in Harris' face too. Watch his head go back. pic.twitter.com/9WBtPXvw2f
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 9, 2016
UPDATE:Straight from the horse's mouth, Chris Harris on the play:
Hand all in my face https://t.co/XvB9CCbHUZ
Carolina's very inefficient drive continued, and as hard as it sounds to believe, the Panthers used their final timeout with the clock already stopped from an incompletion because they failed to line up in time for third-and-5. It was that kind of night. It was also a rough one for Newton with Denver defenders teeing off on him several times. With 42 seconds left, Newton escaped pressure, but took another late helmet-to-helmet shot from Darian Stewart while his pass was flagged for intentional grounding. Those fouls actually offset, giving a big break to Denver. Here is the big hit.
There are problems for a 5-foot-11 safety trying to hit a 6-foot-5 quarterback that drops his head right before contact. Stewart may have intentionally been headhunting, and will likely draw a nice fine, but these hits are happening at high speeds. The fines do not deter players from future big hits, and the damage was still done to Newton, who did not leave the game for concussion testing even though backup quarterback Derek Anderson was briefly shown warming up on the sideline. The NFL still has some explaining to do here. No player should be too much of a star to avoid getting checked out.
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The absence of timeouts limited what plays the Panthers could run, but two more completions set up a reasonable 50-yard field goal for Graham Gano. Kubiak tried icing the kicker, but whether or not that had any impact, Gano did indeed miss the field goal wide left with four seconds left to secure another tight Denver win. This is the fourth time in his career that Gano missed a probable game-winning field goal in a game his team lost. While not an easy kick, it is one he is expected to make in that situation. It is just hard to believe that the Panthers needed nearly three full minutes to move the ball a whopping 28 yards. The offense should have been able to get closer with all of that time.
Credit the Denver pass rush for creating a lot of wasted time for Carolina. Since 2012, the Broncos are 30-5 (.857) when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime. In the five losses, the game-winning drives only traveled a combined 71 yards as the defense was usually put on short fields because of mistakes on offense or special teams. In the 30 wins, Denver came away with 19 turnovers, the most in the league in this situation over that time. Save for that one moment involving Rahim Moore and Jacoby Jones, this defense closes in ridiculous fashion, but last night was the first time it needed the other team to miss a field goal at the end to get the win.
|Fourth-Quarter Comeback Attempts (Down 1-8 PTS) vs. Denver Broncos, 2012-2015|
|9/9/2012||PIT||B.Roethlisberger||25-19||W 31-19||3:00||T.Porter pick-six w/1:58 left|
|10/15/2012||at SD||P.Rivers||28-24||W 35-24||3:52||C.Harris pick-six w/2:05 left|
|11/4/2012||at CIN||A.Dalton||24-20||W 31-20||11:42||C.Bailey INT w/8:38 left; offense added TD|
|11/18/2012||SD||P.Rivers||30-23||W 30-23||0:23||E.Dumervil sacks Rivers to end game|
|11/25/2012||at KC||B.Quinn||17-9||W 17-9||0:11||D.Bruton INT w/0:00 left|
|1/12/2013||BAL||J.Flacco||35-28||L 38-35 OT||1:09||70-yd TD pass to J.Jones w/0:31 left; lose in OT|
|9/15/2013||at NYG||E.Manning||24-16||W 41-23||15:25||C.Harris INT w/14:53 left|
|10/6/2013||at DAL||T.Romo||38-33||W 51-48||15:02||DAL scores 15 4Q points, but D.Trevathan INT w/1:57 left|
|10/27/2013||WAS||R.Griffin||28-21||W 45-21||14:18||V.Miller strip-sack w/13:15 left|
|11/10/2013||at SD||P.Rivers||28-20||W 28-20||6:43||Incomplete on 3rd-and-16 w/3:37 left|
|11/24/2013||at NE||T.Brady||24-21||L 34-31 OT||14:32||J.Edelman go-ahead TD rec. w/13:13 left; lose in OT (muffed punt)|
|12/1/2013||at KC||A.Smith||35-28||W 35-28||3:32||Incomplete on 4th-and-4 at DEN 13 w/1:46 left|
|12/22/2013||at HOU||M.Schaub||16-13||W 37-13||15:21||M.Adams INT w/14:11 left; offense added TD|
|9/7/2014||IND||A.Luck||31-24||W 31-24||2:58||Incomplete on 4th-and-6 at DEN 39 w/1:51 left|
|9/14/2014||KC||A.Smith||24-17||W 24-17||3:20||Incomplete on 4th-and-2 at DEN 2 w/0:15 left|
|10/5/2014||ARI||L.Thomas||27-20||W 41-20||13:48||Three-and-out w/12:20 left|
|10/12/2014||at NYJ||G.Smith||24-17||W 31-17||0:56||A.Talib pick-six w/0:15 left|
|11/23/2014||MIA||R.Tannehill||32-28||W 39-36||5:01||T.Ward INT w/3:30 left; offense added TD|
|12/22/2014||at CIN||A.Dalton||29-28||L 37-28||9:43||M.Nugent 23-yd GW FG w/7:49 left (drive start: DEN 12)|
|9/13/2015||BAL||J.Flacco||19-13||W 19-13||2:55||D.Stewart INT in end zone w/0:28 left|
|9/17/2015||at KC||A.Smith||31-24||W 31-24||0:27||Game-winning fumble return TD; sacked Smith to end game|
|9/27/2015||at DET||M.Stafford||17-12||W 24-12||7:50||D.Bruton INT w/3:37 left; offense added TD|
|10/4/2015||MIN||T.Bridgewater||23-20||W 23-20||1:51||T.Ward strip-sack w/0:29 left|
|10/11/2015||at OAK||D.Carr||9-7||W 16-7||10:58||C.Harris pick-six w/6:53 left|
|10/18/2015||at CLE||J.McCown||23-20||W 26-23 OT||4:51||CLE tying FG; McCown is picked in 4Q, CLE 3-and-out in OT|
|11/22/2015||at CHI||J.Cutler||17-9||W 17-15||1:49||CHI gets TD, but tying 2PC run fails w/0:24 left|
|11/29/2015||NE||T.Brady||24-21||W 30-24 OT||1:09||NE tying FG w/0:00 left; NE 3-and-out in OT|
|12/13/2015||OAK||D.Carr||12-9||L 15-12||14:42||D.Carr go-ahead 16-yd TD pass to M.Rivera w/14:26 left|
|12/20/2015||at PIT||B.Roethlisberger||27-20||L 34-27||14:51||9-yd TD pass to M.Wheaton w/12:34 left; PIT's GWD is 37 yds|
|12/28/2015||CIN||A.McCarron||17-14||W 20-17 OT||11:17||46-yd tying FG drive w/6:46 left; McCarron fumble in OT|
|1/3/2016||SD||P.Rivers||27-20||W 27-20||4:43||Incomplete on 4th-and-6 at DEN 40 w/1:40 left|
|1/17/2016||PIT||B.Roethlisberger||20-13||W 23-16||3:00||D.Ware sack of Roethlisberger on 4th-and-5 w/1:49 left|
|1/24/2016||NE||T.Brady||20-12||W 20-18||1:52||B.Roby intercepts Brady's 2PC pass w/0:12 left|
|2/7/2016||CAR||C.Newton||16-10||W 24-10||4:51||V.Miller strip-sack w/4:04 left|
|9/8/2016||CAR||C.Newton||21-20||W 21-20||3:06||G.Gano wide left on 50-yd FG w/0:04 left|
|Note: not every drive is listed for each game|
Still, a win is a win, and this Denver defense led by Miller tends to clinch a lot of those. We'll see how much longer the defense can keep forcing big turnovers and making the critical stops while the offense tries to find its way. Carolina can at least take comfort that it probably won't see Denver again until the 2020 regular season.