The NFL has an internal battle when picking the opening game for the regular season, which the defending Super Bowl champion traditionally hosts.
Does the league pick the best possible matchup or maximize television ratings?
People are going to be watching on Sept. 10 whether the Kansas City Chiefs are hosting the New England Patriots or Garden City Community College. The NFL knows that too.
The schedule will be released Thursday, and one main topic of conversation each year is which matchup the NFL will give us on opening night. Let’s rank the eight possible matchups, based on the Chiefs’ home opponents this season.
8. New York Jets at Chiefs
The Jets aren’t the worst team in the NFL, but is there any buzz here?
Sure, Sam Darnold’s development is interesting, as is Adam Gase continuing to waste Le’Veon Bell. But nobody would be excited for this one.
7. Carolina Panthers at Chiefs
A Twitter handle promising schedule leaks said the Panthers will be the opening night opponent. We’ll find out soon if that came from inside information or a pure guess.
The only way this matchup in Week 1 makes sense is if the NFL wants to maximize ratings. Panthers-Chiefs in Week 7 will be a random 1 p.m. ET start, but it will draw a monster audience if it’s that first game. Then the NFL could save better Chiefs matchups for midseason when CBS or NBC wants them.
Nobody really would want to see the Panthers’ defense get torched by the Chiefs.
6. Las Vegas Raiders at Chiefs
It will be interesting how the NFL plays the Raiders’ first game in a new market. Will it be a prime-time home game or will the league put the home debut in an exclusive prime-time window in Week 2? Either way, this matchup doesn’t make a lot of sense for Week 1.
5. Los Angeles Chargers at Chiefs
There is some appeal to divisional games, and the Chargers are talented. If Justin Herbert starts from Week 1 on, it would be interesting to watch him. This matchup seems unlikely, mostly because the NFL has avoided divisional games for the Week 1 opener.
4. Atlanta Falcons at Chiefs
If the NFL wanted to give a decent balance between “somewhat interesting matchup” and “not wasting the best possible matchup,” this might be the sweet spot. The Falcons have some star power and an offense that can put up points. A 45-31 Chiefs win would at least make fantasy football players happy. And the NFL could save the best matchups for later in the season.
3. Denver Broncos at Chiefs
The NFL has had its Super Bowl champ host a divisional rival on opening night only twice. Both times it was the New York Giants hosting the game, which proves the NFL has an incurable addiction to forcing NFC East games down our throats. Denver is interesting, with a lot of new weapons. It’s a solid rivalry. It seems unlikely the NFL would go against its preference for non-divisional games on opening night for this one, but it could be a fun one.
2. Houston Texans at Chiefs
The top two possibilities are on another tier from the other six. If this was the game, we’d get Deshaun Watson vs. Patrick Mahomes. It’s a playoff rematch. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth could spend three hours questioning the DeAndre Hopkins trade. Despite all the Bill O’Brien jokes, the Texans are still a defending division champion and a solid team. If this is the opening night pick, nobody would complain.
1. New England Patriots at Chiefs
No, Tom Brady doesn’t work in New England anymore. In some ways, that makes the Patriots an even bigger TV draw. Jarrett Stidham is one of the most compelling figures in the NFL, as a mostly anonymous player with four career attempts taking over for perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history. People love watching the Patriots lose, and they’d tune in to see a team that lost a lot of talent (but still has Bill Belichick, the greatest coach ever). Waiting to put the Patriots-Chiefs game in prime time later in the season is risky, in the unlikely scenario the Patriots have a rough season without Brady. There would be a million storylines with this matchup. We’ll see how the NFL plays it.
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