The NFL returns Thursday night with a rematch of Super Bowl 50 as the Carolina Panthers head to Denver to take on the Broncos. Players are pleased training camp and the exhibition season are over, but none more than Kelvin Benjamin.
The former Florida State standout has not played in a regular-season game in nearly 20 months, but that will end tonight. Benjamin missed all of last season after tearing his ACL during training camp.
Panthers’ fans can savor the return of the 6-5, 245-pound wide receiver, who had an outstanding rookie season in 2014. Not many rookies enjoy seasons with more than 1,000 yards receiving, but the former Seminole did just that. He also hauled in nine touchdown passes.
Many thought Carolina’s offense would suffer without the offense provided by Benjamin. Few thought a Super Bowl appearance was possible without a go-to receiver for quarterback Cam Newton.
The Panthers, and Newton, readjusted and found an offense that rolled over many of their opponents. But could they have beaten the Broncos with him?
“I try not to dwell on that,” he said on Panthers.com. “I can’t do anything to change it. I’m just focusing on the next game.”
Well, the next game is tonight against the same opponent. This time he can make a difference.
“I’m pumped. I’m juiced,” he said. “I’m ready. I’m ready to get on the field.”
Coming back from an injury is one thing. Coming back against the league’s top-ranked defense from a year ago is another.
Denver allowed, on average, fewer than 200 passing yards per game. Some NFL offenses accumulate that total by halftime. The Panthers certainly remember the Broncos’ stifling the Carolina offense in the Super Bowl.
The Broncos are fully aware of Benjamin’s return. They also understand the impact he can have, but Denver is the one to stop him and his teammates.
“He’s a deep, really big receiver — really talented, very fast and can jump,” said Denver’s All-Pro linebacker Von Miller. “Luckily we have one of the best secondaries in the National Football League. Let me rephrase that, we have the best secondary in the National Football League …”
Now that Benjamin is back, albeit in a limited role early on, they are again thinking Super Bowl. Carolina anticipates having Benjamin on the field for about 35 snaps in tonight’s game.
“I think that’s the best guess,” Panthers’ Coach Ron Rivera told the Charlotte Observer. “If it’s more, great. I’d be excited about it.”
So would Benjamin.