And while it took a wide-right 50-yard field-goal attempt to send the Broncos home with a 21-20 win, it said a lot for the quality of the roster -- and the potential it still has -- that the Broncos were able to win despite three turnovers, two penalties for having 12 men on the field and a smattering of missed blocks and tackles.
"I couldn't believe we won the game, with some of the things that we did, some of the mistakes that we made," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "That's a credit to them (the players). But for me, I really look at it as, 'I'm excited because of all I think we can be if we correct those things.' And we'll go to work on correcting those things right now."
In that respect, it seemed like the Broncos picked up right where they left off last season. The offense made mistakes. The defense applied pressure and came up with big stops when they were needed the most. Only once last season did the entire picture come together in a mistake-free, efficient performance: a 29-10 dismantling of Green Bay last Nov. 1.
Some of the mistakes they made were forced by the Panthers. Quarterback Trevor Siemian's first interception in his first career start was caused by an athletic play from Carolina's Star Lotulelei, who leaped and prevented Siemian from completing a screen pass, allowing Thomas Davis to intercept it.
But Siemian and the offense learned from their errors. His lone touchdown pass came on a screen, when he lofted the football just out of Davis' reach, allowing C.J. Anderson to sprint 25 yards for the fourth-quarter score.
"We didn't have to waste a timeout, we didn't get a call, you know what I mean?" Kubiak said. "He handled the operation really good. The guys were confident in him handling the huddle and also doing it from 10 points down against a group like that. I think his poise was a big step in the right direction."
Cam Newton also caused problems, and his six connections with Kelvin Benjamin offered a hint of what might have been in Super Bowl 50 had the third-year wide receiver not torn his ACL in training camp last summer. But the Broncos adjusted, took their chances with man-to-man coverage and cranked up the pressure.
"Coach Wade (Phillips) just got aggressive," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "He said, 'Forget it, man, I'm just going to call everything aggressive,' and trust our DBs to play man. We kind of went back to our old play-calling from the Super Bowl."
It all paid off when Harris Jr. intercepted Newton at the Carolina 23-yard line, setting the Broncos up for a grinding, 10-play drive that was turned into the game-winning touchdown.
"We had to make a turnover," Harris said. "We put the onus on ourselves on defense. We feel like if we go out and be the best defense on the field, we can win every game. The way we were playing was terrible. I just needed to light that spark for us."
Among Harris, Anderson, Siemian and DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller -- who combined for two sacks -- that spark ignited the Broncos to a win that felt just like the taut wins that propelled them to their world championship last February.
--Brandon Marshall knew he would be in the spotlight once he decided to take a knee for the national anthem Thursday.
Marshall, a college teammate and close friend of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick while at Nevada, dropped to one knee during the anthem to call attention to "social injustice," which included experiences of his own. But it is not something he wants to do forever.
"I told (Broncos vice president of public relations Patrick Smyth), 'Let's come up with a strategy for the end game,'" Marshall said Friday. "Truth be told, I'm not sure how long I'm going to do it. I would be lying if I said I did, which is what took me so long to do it in the first place.
"I was wondering, 'What is the end game? How long is it going to take for change? What is the end game for me to be able to get out, do what I need to do and feel good about the change that I maybe have effected?' Patrick and I will come up with a strategy. The PR people and I can come up with a strategy for the end game, and see what is best."
In the meantime, Marshall had to contend with a fusillade of hostile reactions, including myriad tweets and Instagram comments peppered with racist epithets.
"I had a lot of negative, racist comments," Marshall said. "A lot of people calling me the 'N-word' and calling me all kind of derogatory terms. It is what it is. There is a lot of hate out there. I'm not here to spread hate or negativity, I'm here to spread positivity."
He lost a promotional contract with the Air Academy Federal Credit Union, but felt no regrets.
"Absolutely they were worth the consequences," he said. "I lost an endorsement, but that's OK, though. I figured that some sort of repercussion would happen. It's what I thought about and I still made the decision to do it. I can live with it."
--After the draft was complete, Broncos general manager John Elway prioritized the re-signing of three players: inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, outside linebacker Von Miller and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. He went 3 for 3.
Sanders was the final piece of that puzzle, signing a three-year extension that includes $27 million guaranteed and could earn him up to $33 million. If he plays out the contract, Sanders will have played six of his 10 seasons in Denver.
"Now I'm a Bronco for the next three years and have the opportunity to retire a Bronco," he said Friday.
Negotiations between the Broncos and Sanders had been ongoing since June. In July, Sanders said he hoped to have a deal within 30 days, but that time frame passed without a signature on the contract. Los Angeles' deal with Tavon Austin created a further snag.
"The Tavon deal definitely set the market," Sanders said. "Obviously everybody, even you guys were like, 'He has to at least have a better number than that,' and Elway understood that Tavon set the market and he came correct with the proper number."