It had become practically unthinkable in this pass-happy NFL that a team could win a Super Bowl almost exclusively on the strength of its defense with precious little help from its quarterback. Then along came last season's Denver Broncos.

It had become practically unthinkable in this pass-happy NFL that a team could win a Super Bowl almost exclusively on the strength of its defense with precious little help from its quarterback. Then along came last season's Denver Broncos.

Now it's time to see what the powerful Denver defense can do for an encore.

The NFL season begins Thursday night in Denver with a Super Bowl rematch between the Broncos and Carolina Panthers. That puts the spotlight back on the Panthers and their quarterback, Cam Newton, as he and his team get the first chance to grab the attention that won't be devoted to the retired Peyton Manning and the suspended Tom Brady.

It also puts Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller, the Super Bowl most valuable player, and the rest of a slightly retooled Denver defense back on center stage. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said he expects Miller to build on his exploits of last postseason.

"I think he wanted to prove to everybody that maybe he's the best player, maybe he's the defensive player of the year," Phillips said. "He was the MVP in the Super Bowl. But I think his next step or his next goal is to be the defensive player of the year."

There have been other memorably great defenses on Super Bowl-winning teams in recent years. The Seattle Seahawks overwhelmed Manning, coming off a record-setting year, and the Broncos at the conclusion of the 2013 season. The New York Giants followed their pass rush to a pair of Super Bowl triumphs over the Brady-led New England Patriots. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers of Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch overran the Oakland Raiders to end the 2002 season.

But the Seahawks had Russell Wilson at quarterback. The Giants had Eli Manning and the Buccaneers had the efficient Brad Johnson. The Broncos' defensive dominance last season might be more like that of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2000 season, when the Ray Lewis-led defense won a Super Bowl started by Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Yes, Peyton Manning is an all-time-great quarterback. But last season's version of Manning, with nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions during the regular season, meant he had one of the worst years ever by a quarterback to reach a Super Bowl.

The Broncos, even more impressively, crafted their defensive masterpiece in a season in which NFL quarterbacks had the highest league-wide completion percentage and passer rating ever, with the most touchdown passes and lowest interception percentage in history. Miller and the Denver defense shut down Brady in the AFC title game and Newton, the league MVP, in the Super Bowl. Now Newton gets another chance, although with the stakes not as high.

"They missed a lot of opportunities," Miller said at a news conference, recalling the Super Bowl. "Some plays, it wasn't even us, stuff that we did on defense. . . . They had their fair share of chances to win the game. So going into this game, I expect to see the same type of Carolina Panthers because the win was there for them the first time we played. I just expect them to execute a lot better this game. It's the second time around. It's a lot tougher to beat a team the second time around. But I think me and my guys, guys in the locker room, I think we're up for the task."

The Broncos lost defensive end Malik Jackson, who scored the opening touchdown of the Super Bowl by recovering a fumble caused by Miller, and linebacker Danny Trevathan, their leading tackler last season, in free agency. It was part of an eventful offseason in which Manning retired, fellow quarterback Brock Osweiler left as a free agent and Miller, before signing a huge contract, had a contentious set of negotiations in which he made his displeasure with front office chief John Elway clear.

"I think the team has handled it really well," Coach Gary Kubiak said. "Those things happen. They can't do anything about them. They've just got to do their job. But they've stayed focused. There's been a lot of attention in a lot of areas on our team. But the bottom line now, it's time to go play. It's a team game. And we're gonna be successful, if we're gonna be successful, it's gonna be as a football team, not individually. So they're locked in on that. They know that."

But Kubiak said the offseason drama didn't bother him.

"I'd love to have this offseason all the time," he said. "We won a Super Bowl last year. It was a good offseason. So hopefully there's some more of those to come in the future. But that's part of football. There's questions. There's things going on. But you put your blinders on and you go to work every day, and that's what we've done."

Kubiak chose second-year pro Trevor Siemian, a former seventh-round draft pick from Northwestern, to take over as the starter at quarterback, at least until rookie first-round choice Paxton Lynch is deemed ready to play.

"We need to help Trevor all we can," Kubiak said. "But I know Trevor is ready to do his part and we're behind him 100 percent."

Siemian took only one offensive snap last season, and that was for a kneel-down. But he said he feels ready.

"We'll see when we get there," Siemian said at a news conference. "I think this last preseason game I played, I kind of was able to get in a little flow in that third game. So I'm excited to get in the flow of a game and the rhythm of a game. I've got some great teammates to lean on in the huddle. So I think we're looking forward to it."

Siemian doesn't have to do the heavy lifting, of course. He has his defense to do that for him. The Broncos hope that part of the narrative plays out in similar fashion, although Kubiak stresses that his team must be ready for new challenges.

"We let all that go," Kubiak said. "This is a new team, new year, new season. . . . We don't talk about that at all, to be honest with you."