DENVER --There is no exact template for the path the Broncos hope to take from where they stand right now.
No title-winning team has ever opened the next season with a starting quarterback who has never thrown a regular-season pass. But that quarterback, 24-year-old Trevor Siemian, has elite weapons at his disposal: two recent Pro Bowl wide receivers and a recent Pro Bowl running back, all of whom have agreed to or signed long-term contracts in the last 14 months.
But from a defensive perspective, there is a template.
Consider the elite, championship-winning defenses to which the Broncos are compared: the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers and 2013 Seahawks.
At least eight of their starters in the Super Bowl were in the Week 1 starting lineup the following season; that will almost certainly be the case for the Broncos, with nine of the 11 players on their No. 1 defense having started in Super Bowl 50.
But not all of them sustained their dominance. Why? Start with age.
The 2001 Ravens opened the season with starters whose average age was 29 years, 232 days, and an average experience level of 8.5 seasons. They were good in the year after their title, but not quite as elite; after allowing 15.4 percent fewer yards per play than the average in 2000, they took a step back, to 13.2 percent better than the average.
Next oldest of those four defenses was that of the 2003 Buccaneers, with an average experience level of 6.4 seasons and an average age of 27 years, 199 days. After allowing 18.6 percent fewer yards per play than the average in 2002, they dipped to 8.6 percent better than the average -- and fell from 12-4 to 7-9.
The 2014 Seahawks (average age 26 years, 299 days; average experience 5.5 seasons) are next. Their drop-off was similar to the 2001 Ravens, from 17.5 percent better than the league average in yardage per play to 14.9 percent better. But that kept them atop the league rankings, and they returned to the Super Bowl.
Finally, you have the 1985-86 Bears. Chicago opened the 1986 season with a defense that averaged 5.3 years of experience and 26 years, 133 days of age. That youthful attack helped the Bears improve from 13.0 percent to 17.2 percent better than the league average in yardage per play from 1985 to 1986, allowing them to go 14-2 in spite of cycling through four quarterbacks.
If the Broncos start their listed 11 first-teamers, they'll fall in between the 2014 Seahawks and the 2003 Buccaneers on this list; their average age will be 27.7 years and their average experience level will be 6.3 seasons. But that includes DeMarcus Ware, who will be on a play count to monitor the health of his back. If 23-year-old Shane Ray starts for Ware, those numbers drop to 26.7 years and 5.36 seasons — making them younger than all but the '86 Bears.
No one is saying that the 2016 Broncos defense will be as ferocious and overpowering as Chicago's 1986 unit, which allowed fewer points than the celebrated 1985 defense. But the Bears offer a template the Broncos are poised to follow: a collection of core returning starters that are still ascending towards their career peak.
Throughout the offseason and preseason, Broncos defenders have reminded inquisitors that, yes, this defense can be better.
Some sequels can surpass the original. This defense just might be able to do it, and if it can, the Broncos will find themselves in the position they want to have in January: back in the playoffs, contending for a trip to Houston and Super Bowl LI.
That road starts Thursday night. What are the keys to the game against the Panthers?
- Use balance to defuse pressure**
Perhaps the worst situation the Broncos can find themselves in is one where the Panthers will be able to attack Siemian with impunity because the ground game isn't a threat.
But if they can do enough to establish the run early, Siemian should have more open lanes downfield, and the play-action bootlegs he ran so well in the preseason should be even more effective. Successful execution of the play-action game can keep the Panthers' fearsome front seven from attacking at will, and force them to play a bit more conservatively, giving the quarterback more time.
Simply put, balance opens the horizon for Siemian.
2. Start by stopping the run
This was the formula in Super Bowl 50. Few teams can pull it off, but the Broncos have two of the best man-to-man coverage cornerbacks in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib and edge rushers who combine speed with discipline. That frees the safeties and inside linebackers to divide their focus between Pro Bowl TE Greg Olsen and the Panthers' stable of runners -- which, of course, includes mobile QB Cam Newton.
Ray's improvement against the run and the play of Todd Davis on the inside next to stalwart Brandon Marshall offer the Broncos optimism that their run defense could be stouter than last year, even with Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan having moved on in free agency.
The must-win matchups for the Broncos when the Panthers visit Denver on Thursday night in the NFL's kickoff game.
Davis, in particular, played with aggression in his two-down role during the preseason.
"Danny played the run extremely well, but Todd might be our best run stopper at linebacker," Marshall said. "He's stout. He knows where he's going. He's physical. He hits the ballcarrier and they don't get extra yards. He's probably our best run defender at linebacker."
And if that proves to be the case, the Broncos are poised to not only contain Carolina's ground attack, but that of future foes, as well.
3. Protect the football
Carolina's opportunism was crucial in making its 17-win season possible last year. Takeaways either directly accounted for or set up a league-leading 148 points last year, more than double the league average of 71.4, and more than any other team this decade.
As is the case with the Broncos' overall defensive metrics, few believe the Panthers can get as many points off turnovers this season. But the Panthers ranked eighth and 11th in that statistic in 2013 and 2014, so while their raw number might be an outlier, their overall success is not.
Further, the Panthers are undefeated in their last 28 games (including postseason) dating back to September 2013 with an positive turnover differential, with 27 wins and a tie in those games. In all other games in that span, they are 10-14.