As the 2015 NFL season winds to a close Sunday with Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., it’s only natural for those outside of Denver and Charlotte to be looking ahead to next season.
That includes fans in the Valley, who saw their Arizona Cardinals fall just short of a second trip to the Super Bowl when they were beaten by the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game nearly two weeks ago.
Should the Panthers beat the Broncos Sunday, Cam Newton and Co. would likely host the NFL’s 2016 Thursday night Kickoff game, which has become quite a spectacle in its own right. The last 12 Super Bowl champions have opened the next season in the league’s Thursday opener.
But who would the Panthers play?
Outside of their three division opponents, Carolina will host the San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and … the Arizona Cardinals.
ESPN NFL insider John Clayton joined Doug and Wolf Friday morning on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM and said one could make a compelling case for a Cardinals-Panthers rematch to open the 2016 campaign.
“I think you can,” Clayton said. “Naturally, you would think you’d go by the championship (games) and what about Denver-New England? Certainly, without Peyton Manning, you would say ‘no'”
Win or lose in Sunday’s Super Bowl, Manning is expected to announce his retirement after an illustrious 18-year career. His absence would certainly take a lot of the luster off of a Broncos-Patriots AFC Championship Game rematch. Those two teams are scheduled to meet during the 2016 regular season at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
“The New England games are too valuable — they’re not going to put a Denver-New England game on in the first game because they can get better ratings on New England football later in the season,” Clayton said. “So I think Carolina-Arizona would be a perfect one.”
It is interesting to note that in this run of 12 straight Super Bowl champs opening the next season on Thursday night, only twice has the game featured a conference championship game rematch. The New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings opened the 2010 season after meeting in the NFC Championship Game the year prior and the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts revisited their AFC Championship meeting to open 2004.