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5 key trends for NFL season openers and why the Patriots have just 2 potential opponents

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The Patriots can really only face the Chiefs or the Texans.

On Monday, I issued a poll asking readers which team they wanted the New England Patriots to face in the 2017 season opener and there were three clear leaders: 1) the Atlanta Falcons (30%); 2) the Kansas City Chiefs (25%); 3) the Houston Texans (24%).

I decided to take a deeper dive into the history of season openers to see if we could figure out any other clues or trends.

The reigning Super Bowl champion has hosted the subsequent Thursday Night season opener dating back to 2004, when the Patriots celebrated their 2003 Super Bowl title by kicking off the year with a 27-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. This will be the fourth time the Patriots have hosted the season opener.

There have been two exceptions:

  1. In 2012, the New York Giants hosted the Dallas Cowboys on Wednesday to avoid overlapping with a speech by then-President Barack Obama. The Cowboys won 24-17.
  2. In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens went on the road to face the Denver Broncos because the Baltimore Orioles had a baseball game and the city couldn’t handle both games because the Ravens and Orioles share a parking lot. The Broncos won 49-27.

In the 11 other games, the reigning Super Bowl champion has also won the season opener. The Patriots also defeated the Oakland Raiders 30-20 to start the 2005 season and the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-21 to start the 2015 season.

We can look at the previous games to find other takeaways to help figure out the Patriots opponent.

  1. The New York Giants are the only team to face a division rival. In 2008, the Giants hosted Washington, and then they hosted the Cowboys in 2012. The NFC East is the biggest market division, so the league clearly saw an opportunity. No other season opener featured two teams from the same division. There’s something about Eli Manning.
  2. The league loves playoff rematches. The 2003 Patriots defeated the Colts in the AFC Championship Game and hosted the Colts to start the 2004 season. The 2009 Saints defeated the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and hosted the Vikings to start the 2010 season. The Broncos and Ravens were a rematch of the 2012 divisional round, and the Broncos and the Panthers were a rematch of Super Bowl LI.
  3. And if not a playoff rematch, then a game against a division winner. The Colts hosted the Saints in 2007, after the Saints finished first in the 2006 NFC South. The Steelers hosted the 2008 AFC South champion Tennessee Titans to start the 2009 season. The Packers won the NFC North in 2013 and faced the Seahawks to start 2014, and the Steelers won the AFC North in 2014 and faced the Patriots to start 2015.
  4. The league rarely crosses conferences. The Colts and Saints in 2007 and the Broncos and Panthers in 2016 are the only season openers to feature two teams playing in different conferences, both in the wake of Peyton Manning Super Bowls. The league clearly prefers to use conference games to start the season. There’s something about Peyton Manning.
  5. When all else fails, find the best opposing quarterback. Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Drew Brees (again), and Peyton Manning (again). The only exceptions were in 2005 (Raiders, Kerry Collins); 2006 (Dolphins, Daunte Culpepper); 2008 (Washington, Jason Campbell); and 2009 (Titans, Vince Young). Since 2010, the league has tried to open the season up with a good quarterback on the other sideline.

So with these factors in mind, we can probably eliminate the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, and Panthers. We can also probably eliminate the Falcons because that will be a big prime time draw later in the year and the Panthers complained about facing the Broncos to start the 2016 season; additionally the Falcons will likely open up their stadium in prime time in week 2, so the league might shy away from two-straight prime time games to start the season, per MMQB’s Peter King.

Poll

Would you rather watch the Patriots face the Chiefs or the Texans to start 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Chiefs
    (922 votes)
  • 42%
    Texans
    (677 votes)
1599 votes total Vote Now

That leaves the Chiefs, Texans, and Los Angeles Chargers as possible options. The Chiefs won the AFC West in 2016, while the Patriots faced the Texans (also a division winner) in the playoffs. The Chargers are neither a playoff rematch or a division and can probably be eliminated as an option.

The biggest star for either the Chiefs and Texans is probably Texans DL J.J. Watt, who will likely make his return from a major back injury, but the Chiefs have a superior quarterback- and that would probably be the deciding factor.