What we learned: Kubiak's gamble lifts Broncos to win

Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining, salvaging a 21-20 Denver Broncos victory in the 2016 NFL Kickoff. Here's what you need to know:

  1. Carolina controlled the Super Bowl 50 rematch until a crucial mid-fourth quarter challenge by Ron Rivera turned Denver's first-and-goal opportunity at the 1-yard line into a fourth-and-inches brain-twister. Needing only a field goal to tie, Gary Kubiak out-Riverboated the Riverboat, opting to risk a fourth-down conversion with the game on the line. Four plays later, C.J. Anderson gave the Broncos their first lead of the game with a one-yard touchdown plunge. Chalk one up for the analytics director in Kubiak's headset, armed with an expanded understanding of probability in determining the outcome of football games.
  1. Shaking off his fourth helmet-to-helmet hit of the night, Cam Newton led the Panthers on a three-minute drill into field-goal range with the aid of several penalties. Chris Harris' illegal use of hands infraction on fourth-and-21 gave Carolina new life with an automatic first down early in the possession. Newton's intentional grounding penalty on second-and-10 with 42 seconds remaining was offset by Darian Stewart's roughing the passer foul, bailing the Panthers out once again. Newton then found Kelvin Benjamin for 16 yards and threaded the needle to Ted Ginn at the sideline to set Gano up for the victory. Kubiak succeeded in icing the kicker, as Gano snuck the first kick inside the right upright. Given time to overthink the next opportunity, Gano pulled the next one wide of the left upright.
  1. Although he made a few mistakes, Trevor Siemian showed impressive poise in his first NFL start. The Broncos accrued nearly as many yards by the middle of the second quarter as they managed in the entirety of Super Bowl 50. Siemian showed a lightning-quick release, plus athleticism and improvisational ability in key situations. Overall, the positives outweighed the negatives, which included two interceptions under pressure, a missed touchdown pass to a wide-open Virgil Green and holding the ball too long on a third-down sack deep in the fourth quarter. It remains to be seen how long Siemian can hold off promising first-round rookie Paxton Lynch, but he exhibited enough attributes to believe he can play at the NFL level for years to come.
  1. We are buying C.J. Anderson stock behind a much improved offensive line this year. Anderson was the AFC's best running back from November to February last season, leading the league in yards per carry from Week 8 through the playoffs. He picked up where he left off in the Super Bowl, showing decisiveness, vision, burst and sharp cutting ability to make the first defender miss and spring into the open field. He was the star of the game, racking up 139 yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns on 23 touches. If you're keeping score at home, an undrafted running back and seventh-round quarterback led the defending champions to victory over the NFC's 2015 superpower.
  1. So much for the notion that Kelvin Benjamin would be limited in his first game back from ACL surgery. The behemoth wideout immediately regained his 2014 role as Newton's go-to receiver, pacing the team with nine targets, including a 14-yard touchdown to stake the Panthers to an early lead. Benjamin's 62 first-half yards matched the highest of his career. The problem for Carolina's aerial attack was the supporting cast behind Benjamin and sure-handed Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. No other pass-catcher managed more than 11 yards versus a stingy Denver secondary.
  1. With Newton's quarterback-record 44th career rushing touchdown as the highlight, the Panthers gained more than 100 yards on the ground for the 33rd consecutive game -- the longest NFL streak in 40 years. That score also gave Newton the record for most games with both a passing and rushing touchdown. Hall of Famer Steve Young held both records for nearly two decades.
  1. Newton was cruising for two and a half quarters, casting doubt on Denver's once dominant pass rush. After DeMarcus Ware bent low on the edge to sack Newton into Von Miller's oncoming helmet in the middle of the third quarter, though, Carolina's offense was never the same. Being held and chipped for much of the night, Miller was relatively quiet until he came through with a key sack on third-and-15, forcing Newton into a fourth-and-21 desperation play on the game's final drive. The Broncos certainly missed Malik Jackson's disruptive presence on the interior, but the defensive stars made plays with the game on the line.
  1. Panthers general Dave Gettleman can feel better about desperately surrendering a fourth-round draft pick for veteran punter Andy Lee at the end of August. Taking advantage of the thin mile-high air, Lee averaged an astonishing 63.0 yards on four punts. The showpiece was a franchise-record 76-yard boomer, longer than all but one NFL punt in 2015.
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