CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- STATS Inc does more than dig stats. It excavates them. The Broncos defense ranked first in 16 defensive categories last season according to their research, including the common (sacks and yards per game) and random (yards rushing on second down and red zone efficiency).
The Broncos mauled the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, holding the NFL's best offense to 10 points and quarterback Cam Newton to 18 of 41 passing with three turnovers. It represented his lowest completion percentage since Oct. 30, 2014. Yet, the Broncos sit as a consensus 3-point underdog, despite winning 15 of their last 16 home openers.
Consider it kerosene on the flickering flames of the defense.
"I am never surprised when they make us underdogs. That's just what they like to do. It's like they want to fuel the fire," defensive end Derek Wolfe told Denver7. "It's like they want to fuel the fire. Let 'em keep doing it."
The defense isn't naive. The players understand the national doubt begins at quarterback. The Broncos are the first defending Super Bowl champion team to start a quarterback in the season opener who has never attempted a pass. Since it became obvious Siemian would play, the players have rallied around him. The Broncos won't ask Siemian to carry them, only to do his part. If the blueprint can be trusted from last season's five-game season-ending winning streak, it means taking care of the ball, converting one or two critical third downs and let the defense go to work.
The defense sees a Carolina team which is dangerous, but not unstoppable. The difference could be in the running game. Newton admitted this week that the ground attack is pivotal. Jonathan Stewart rushed for 189 yards in Carolina's two playoff victories before playing Denver. Then with seven minutes left in the opening quarter against the Broncos, he tangled and bent his left foot back on a defender. Von Miller strip-sacked Newton on the next play, leading to a touchdown. Stewart gained 27 yards on his next 11 carries after the injury.
If the Broncos make Carolina more predictable, even as dynamic as Newton is, it plays to their favor. Obvious passing downs can be difficult upon visitors regarding the snap count (see New England Patriots offensive line in the AFC Championship Game).
What makes Denver's defense dangerous is its fangs. The Broncos don't stop teams. They turn them over, the biggest difference a year ago from past seasons. External doubt drove them last season. As the shirts most players are wearing ahead of the game say, "It's Time" to silence critics again.
"I don't look it as a rematch or that (bile) or anything. It's a whole new season. A whole different stadium," said Wolfe, who finished the season with at least half of a sack in nine of the last 10 games. "Keep making me the underdog. I have been the underdog my whole life."