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Thursday Night Football Preview: A Super Bowl Rematch

The Panthers travel to Denver to face a Broncos team that is quite a bit different than the one they lost to in Super Bowl 50. What do the algorithms have to say about tonight's game?

Historically, the team that loses the Super Bowl tends to lose their way the following season.

This time around, though, it's the Super Bowl winner that is the likelier candidate for massive regression.

The Denver Broncos are transitioning from an offense "led" by "Peyton Manning" and Brock Osweiler to one piloted by Trevor Siemian, though the Carolina Panthers have plenty of changes to deal with on their own this upcoming season.

What should we expect in 2016's season-opening game?

What Will Denver's Offense Look Like?

We have no NFL track record from which to extrapolate information on Siemian, but rather than throw up one of those shrug emojis, is there anything we know for sure?

Well, it's unlikely that he'll be worse than the passers they had last season. According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Peyton Manning's 411 drop backs yielded 7.95 points below expectation level for the Denver offense. That's a mark of -0.02 on a per-drop back basis.

That wouldn't be awful if the league average was actually zero, but in today's pass-friendly environment, the average drop back yielded 0.11 Net Expected Points in 2015. So, yeah, Manning was awful. Osweiler played close to the league-average rate, posting a mark of 0.08 on 411 drop backs of his own, but he has taken his talents to Houston for the 2016 season.

In all, Denver owned the 28th-most efficient offense even after adjusting for schedule strength, according to our metrics, despite Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders both finishing among the top 18 receivers in Reception NEP among wideouts to see at least 40 targets.

When those two receivers weren't boosting Denver's chances to score, everyone was just sending the offense in the wrong direction, including the 27th-ranked rushing unit.

It can only go up from here, and that offense will get a tough test in Week 1 -- most likely.

How Will the Panthers' Defense Fare?

The Panthers lost cornerback Josh Norman to Washington this past offseason, and that could cause their defense -- which ranked second in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back in 2015 -- to take a big step back.

The team also will be without Roman Harper and Charles Tillman moving forward, so even if this unit will be just as good against the pass in 2016 as they were last year, the key pieces will be drastically different as they'll be relying on a slew of rookies to replicate that success.

The Panthers' defense will be about as tough as they come up front thanks to -- in part, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis -- but if the unheralded Siemian can expose their secondary in his first NFL action, be on the lookout for some big overreactions on Friday morning.

Historical Comparisons

According to our algorithm, the closest match for this game in the ol' NFL database is a 2006 tilt between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals (representing the Panthers in terms of similarity) won 28-20 but didn't lead from wire-to-wire. A 3-yard Willie Parker score put the Steelers up 7-0 in the first quarter before the Carson Palmer to Chris Henry connection linked up for two second-quarter touchdowns for a 14-7 lead in Cincinnati's favor.

A Jeff Reed field goal narrowed the gap, and another short touchdown plunge from Parker put Pittsburgh back on top 17-14 in the late third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Palmer connected with T.J. Houshmandzadeh twice within a minute to take a commanding 28-17 lead, and the Steelers couldn't overcome it.

In that game, the Steelers were actually 2-point home favorites, but the Panthers are 3-point favorites on the road in a game with an over/under of just 40.5.

Still, it's not unreasonable to think that Denver's shaky passing game -- Ben Roethlisberger went 18 of 39 for 208 yards and 3 picks -- is kept afloat by some short C.J. Anderson scores but ultimately thwarted by Cam Newton and the league's ninth-best passing offense, per our metrics, from 2015.

What the Algorithms Say

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