It's already determined who and where each NFL team will play next season; the order, dates, times, and channels are not. The first step is placing a few of the biggest blockbuster games into kickoff weekend. Looming decisions for Week 1 this year include the Chiefs' opponent and how to maximize Tom Brady's debut with the Buccaneers.
The defending Super Bowl champions historically open the season at home, Thursday night on NBC (last year was an exception, with the Packers-Bears rivalry kicking off the NFL's 100th season). Kansas City's home opponents in 2020, outside of the three other AFC West teams, are New England, New York (Jets), Houston, Carolina, and Atlanta.
Amid Brady's decision to go south, the Patriots' road game against the Chiefs next season is no longer the juicy, buzz-worthy, and inevitable kickoff matchup. Opening weekend is about headlines, starting season with games that have attractive storylines leftover from the previous season. Houston, while not a top draw in the NFL, is the best available option.
Patrick Mahomes vs. Deshaun Watson has the potential, and is the frontrunner, to be the next great quarterback rivalry. Watson isn't the league-altering superstar Mahomes is — nor is anyone else — but he's young, explosive, and makes plays others couldn't fathom attempting.
Chiefs-Texans has the built-in drama coming off a still-hard-to-process playoff result. Somehow, the Texans raced out to a 24-lead, smelled blood early in the second quarter, and got blown out 51-31. How about a revenge game in an attempt to spoil the Chiefs' celebration?
If the Chargers make a quarterback splash (particularly with Cam Newton) that'd be a viable opening matchup for the Chiefs as well.
The NFL has more appealing options for Brady's debut with the Bucs. In addition to the teams in the NFC South, Tampa hosts Green Bay, both Los Angeles teams, Kansas City, and Minnesota. The Bucs travel to Chicago, Denver, Detroit, New York (Giants), and Las Vegas.
Again, it'd be astounding for the Chiefs to not open at home, so their clash with the Bucs isn't happening Week 1. The second-most alluring encounter on the Bucs' schedule is against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers. Though, the NFL should want to save a quarterback duel of that magnitude for later in the year when seasons and seeds are on-the-line. Translation: A massive ratings draw in December.
Separating Brady's debut with the Bucs and his debut in Tampa Bay is the most effective strategy. The NFL can sell two different grabbers in the first two weeks, which will be crucial going up against an election cycle. Here's how: Start Brady on the road on Sunday Night Football, then a week later promote his first game in front of his new fanbase at home on FOX at 4:25 p.m ET. (By the way, FOX must be ecstatic that Brady's moving to the NFC.)
Creating and separating the most headlines opening weekend includes keeping Brady away from the Raiders. "An NFL game in Las Vegas" is a draw on its own. This would successfully work as the late game on the Monday Night Football doubleheader, assuming the ESPN package will again kick off with two games.
The Brady-led Bucs opening in Detroit, against a bunch of ex-Pats (on and off the field) checks off the boxes. As does placing Brady into the New York atmosphere against the Giants, who are the closest thing to his kryptonite, even if Eli Manning won't be a part of the show this time around.
Week 17 should and likely will be reserved for one of the Bucs-Saints matchups. But opening with Part 1 is an option. Tampa Bay has to compete with New Orleans in order to reach its newly inherited expectations. It's inevitable that Brady and Drew Brees, who are both over 40 and took drastically different offseason approaches, will be compared to each other throughout the season. An early season head-to-head run-in between the legends would have that story off and running.
Right now, with prominent free agents still on the market and the draft a month away, here's how the NFL can best capitalize on it's first few nationally televised games:
Opening night — Texans at Chiefs
Afternoon window Sunday — A Cowboys game
Sunday Night Football — Buccaneers at Lions
Monday Night Football doubleheader —Steelers at Bengals (we all think Joe Burrow's going number 1) and Chargers at Raiders