ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --One ancillary benefit of the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 win is that they earned the right to host the regular-season opener as the NFL kicks off the 2016 season.
The Broncos hosted the kickoff game on Thursday night in 2013 when the Baltimore Ravens could not because of a conflict with their next-door neighbors, Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles, with whom they share parking. No such issues exist this time around.
Denver has a strong home schedule for 2016 -- so deep, in fact, that any one of the Broncos' eight foes could be possibilities for the game. A Panthers-Broncos rematch to start the season could be irresistible, but the league may want to delay that duel until later in the regular season, especially since the kickoff game draws a massive audience, no matter who plays in it.
There are reasons why -- and why not -- each game could be chosen. Let's take a look at them:
Why?The Falcons aren't elite, but they're good enough to put on a show. Julio Jones is arguably the toughest receiver on the Broncos' 2016 slate. There are some intriguing coaching connections; Falcons head coach Dan Quinn coordinated the Seahawks defense that throttled the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Kyle Shanahan, the son of the Broncos' winningest head coach Mike Shanahan, runs a zone-blocking-based scheme that is the most analogous to the Broncos' one.
Why not?As the primary network for NFC-at-AFC games, Fox may push to keep this game (although the Broncos have seen past prime-time games against the Saints in 2012, 49ers in 2014 and Packers in 2015 grabbed by NBC for prime-time telecasts). The Falcons haven't had a winning season since 2012, and aren't considered a marquee team, but with a solid draft and the development of defensive players, should be improved in 2016. This is a dark-horse possibility.
Why?Because it would drip with drama. Will the Broncos' defense be able to contain Cam Newton again -- and this time, when he has his top outside weapon, Kelvin Benjamin available? Can the Broncos muster a more consistent attack against Carolina's stout defense? Assuming that Von Miller is back, can he repeat his dominance of Carolina's blocking scheme from the teams' last two games?
Why not?Because the last time the NFL had the chance, they eschewed a season-opening Super Bowl rematch. Since deciding to give the Super Bowl winner the regular-season home opener, the only possible Super Bowl season-opening rematch was in 2014, but the NFL opted to play Broncos at Seahawks in Week 3 on CBS. As with the Falcons, Fox may make a push to keep control of this game. Still, a rematch of a competitive Super Bowl that was in doubt with five minutes remaining could be too delicious for the NFL to resist using as the kickoff game.
Why?It would be a game that potentially features a galaxy of defensive stars: J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, etc. DeAndre Hopkins will be a stiff challenge for the Broncos' secondary. Gary Kubiak, Wade Phillips and plenty of others in orange and blue have deep connections with the city of Houston and the Texans.
Why not?The defenses are so good, it might be a low-scoring slugfest, so it might not be the most attractive game stylistically for a mass audience. (Football fans in the know, on the other hand, would love it.) Massive questions loom about Houston's quarterback situation in the wake of Brian Hoyer's wild-card collapse.
Why?The recent history between the teams of fierce, memorable games offers plenty of background for another compelling clash. Andrew Luck and the Colts had their best game of 2015 -- by far -- in upsetting the Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium last November. The Broncos defense pounded Luck, exacting an injury toll that knocked him out for the season. Despite the Colts' injuries, they finished one game out of the division title and should be a strong contender with better health in 2016.
Why not?Two of the last three regular-season games between the teams were in prime time, and even though CBS had the game last November, the network may lean on the NFL to keep this game on its airwaves.
Why?After losing seven consecutive games to the Broncos, their dominant performance in the 29-13 win in Week 10 last November shows that despite the Broncos' recent dominance, the rivalry remains strong -- and rivalries usually have the best chance of yielding competitive games. The Chiefs haven't had a losing season since Andy Reid's arrival and should be in strong contention once again.
Why not?The Chiefs, like the Broncos, face the possibility of absorbing some hits in free agency. But key components like Jeremy Maclin, Alex Smith and Justin Houston are expected to return.
Why?It's the best inter-divisional rivalry in the AFC. Playoff rematches have been used in past Thursday-night openers in 2004 (Patriots-Colts), 2010 (Saints-Vikings) and 2013 (Broncos-Seahawks). Both games last season were down-to-the-wire classics, even though the Broncos had different starting quarterbacks in each game. Can the Broncos generate the same kind of pressure on Tom Brady that they did in the AFC Championship Game, using a variety of rushes?
Why not?Because the regular-season games between the Broncos and Patriots have alternated between CBS and NBC since 2012. CBS had the 2012 and 2014 games; NBC had the 2013 and 2015 showdowns for prime time. To keep the peace between networks, expect this game to be a 2:25 MDT/MST kickoff some other week during the season.
Why?Because it's one of the league's best historical rivalries, and got a needed resuscitation in 2015 thanks to the tough, defensive-dominated duels that yielded a combined score of 28-25. Assuming Miller returns, the game would feature two of the game's most disruptive edge rushers in Miller and Khalil Mack, both of whom are also effective against the run. The Jack Del Rio angle adds further intrigue and depth.
Why not?Because the NFL may not want to put a franchise with such an unknown future in regards to its venue in the prime-time spotlight to open the season, and because the Raiders, while rising, still haven't had a winning season since 2002.
Why?Philip Rivers -- end of story. Rivers has more wins at Sports Authority Field at Mile High than any opposing quarterback, leading the Chargers to a 6-5 record (including postseason) since becoming their starter in 2006. A down-to-the wire game in Week 17 last month despite the Chargers' struggles shows that you can almost always expect a tough, competitive game that keeps viewers tuned until the final gun.
Why not?As with the Raiders, the questions about the franchise's long-term future provide a storyline the NFL may not want spotlighted in one of its marquee events. And even though the Chargers are a certain bet to rebound from their injury-spurred 4-12 finish, a team coming off that kind of season isn't an easy sell for the Thursday-night opener.