DENVER — The Broncos won. They earned it. They deserved it. They beat the Carolina Panthers with Trevor Siemian at quarterback. That is no small achievement. That is like going to the moon in a Prius.
The Broncos defense is still the best in football. With that defense, Denver will be almost impossible to beat. Yes, the Broncos are still the team to beat, even with first-time starter Siemian at quarterback.
The most-discussed topic from this game won't be the physical, gutsy 21-20 win. It won't be the 50-yard attempt at a game-winner by Panthers kicker Graham Gano that went wide left. It won't be the brilliant play of that cement block of a Denver defense.
It will be this: There has rarely, if ever, in the recent history of the NFL—which is supposed to now care about head trauma—been a quarterback treated with such ugly, disgraceful and blatant disregard for his health as Cam Newton was on Thursday.
The Broncos earned this win, so please, do not misunderstand. But what happened to Newton is truly unprecedented, in the past decade at least. Newton was treated like a quarterback playing in the 1970s, not a quarterback playing in a league that says—all the time—how it cares about its concussed players. This was like watching Ken Stabler play.
The most blatant hit came when linebacker Brandon Marshall launched into Newton's head, the crown of Marshall's helmet smashing into the side of Newton's.
That should be a penalty, without question, and it happened right in front of the game official. But there was no penalty.
That call, literally, is the easiest to make in football. There were three other occasions when Newton was hit in the head, and not because he was running, but when he was in the pocket, throwing or trying to throw the football. The Broncos were called once for a hit.
The game was both good and bad for the Broncos. Mostly good, because the head shots can be coached out of their play.
What the game showed was that Denver hasn't lost any of its speed or viciousness from the Super Bowl. Again, the Broncos will be brutal for any offense to face.
Despite an injury to his right leg after one nasty hit, Newton in the first half looked far better against Denver than he did in the Super Bowl this past February. He again carried an offense lacking in supreme talent.
Then the speed and tenacity of the Broncos started to catch up to the Panthers. The second half felt like a postseason game and Denver began to swarm Newton. ESPN's statistical arm said the Broncos pressured Newton 14 times, tied for the fifth-most pressures against Newton in a game.
This defense bends and morphs, adapting to whatever is needed. The Broncos turn offensive game plans into mush. They alternate between traveling at warp speed and steamrolling an offense. We already knew what they did last year wasn't a fluke, but derailing the NFL's MVP two consecutive times proves that once and for all.
By the end of this season, we might be talking about this defense as one of the best to ever do it.
Von Miller was quiet for much of the game, but in the second half, he got more pressure on Newton and sacked him on a key Carolina drive. In the first half, Newton rushed for 36 yards and a score, and threw for 111 yards and a touchdown. But in the second, Newton had just 83 yards passing. Carolina scored only three points in the second half. The Broncos got to him.
All that was good for Denver, but there was bad, too. There's no question there was a dirty aspect to what the Broncos did. It's also crystal-clear the Broncos seemed to be flat-out head-hunting when it came to Newton.
Newton didn't blame the game officials for the head hits after the loss. "I didn't think I was being targeted in the head," he said.
To be clear, however, just because Newton says that, doesn't make it so. Newton seemed more determined to not irritate the NFL or game officials than anything else.
"It's not my job to question the officials," he said. "I like this officiating crew." Then Newton added: "It's not fun getting hit in the head."
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis agreed that Newton is treated differently.
“That’s nothing new," he told Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer. "They didn’t do anything different that hasn’t happened all along.
“It’s just something that the league is going to have to police, and they’re going to have to do a better job of and start treating him like the quarterback that he is.
“They look at his size. It’s kind of like the NBA used to allow guys to get away with that against Shaquille O’Neal because of his size. But when you dig deep down into it, they talk about player safety all the time, and they need to protect that player as well.”
I want to commend Newton for his courage. It takes a lot of guts to keep playing through those kinds of hits. Yet talking about courage takes away from the fact there was negligence on the part of the game officials and an NFL that talks constantly about player safety. There was nothing safe about what happened to Newton.
The Broncos head shots can't be explained by the fact Newton is a running quarterback because many of the head shots came when Newton was in or near the pocket. It's also incredibly hard to believe that Newton wasn't affected by those shots. They were some of the nastier head hits you will ever see.
Yes, the Broncos won. That defense will be nasty. Again. It will dominate the sport. Again. It's that good.
Give the defenders credit.
Yet it was ugly and, at times, it was dirty, and the refs let it go.
Nice job, NFL.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.