Since 2004 the NFL Kickoff Game has featured the defending Super Bowl Champion. With the Patriots and Rams now locked in to the Super Bowl LIII matchup, it is worth considering their possible opponents for the 2019 Kickoff Game. We already know the slate of opponents for every NFL team in 2019 and based on past history can make reasonable guesses regarding the potential opponents. The Steelers are scheduled to play both the Rams and Patriots next year, so this theorhetical exercise does have some bearing on the Steelers 2019 outlook.
The Super Bowl Champion Will Play At Home
In the 15 previous Kickoff Game matchups which featured a defending Super Bowl Champion, only once has the defending Champion not played at home. That was because of a parking dispute between the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, which forced the Ravens to travel to Denver to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Therefore, it is almost a certainty that next year’s game will be held in either Foxboro or Los Angeles. Since the Steelers will be facing the Rams at Heinz Field next year, this rules out the possibility of Pittsburgh hosting the Kickoff Game, unless some other strange scenario occurs that prevents the game from being in Los Angeles.
Only twice has the Kickoff Game been between opponents from opposite conferences. One of those was in 2016 between Carolina and Denver, a rematch of Super Bowl 50 played 9 months prior. The second was a 2007 game between the Saints and Colts, meaning 13 of the 15 Kickoff Games have been between conference opponents. Since the Patriots and Rams will not face each other in 2019 it seems very likely the Kickoff Game will be a conference game.
Additionaly, only two Kickoff Games to date have been divisional matchups. Both of those games (not surprisingly) have featured NFC East teams and came after the Giants won the Super Bowl. In 2008 the Giants opened the season against Washington and in 2012 they opened against Dallas. No other defending champions have faced divisional opponents in Week 1. Therefore, it seems relatively safe to rule out a potential divisional game.
Looking at the 2019 home slates for the Patriots and Rams, and eliminating non-conference and divisional opponents, the following potential teams remain:
New England: Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland
Los Angeles: New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Chicago
The Opponent is Usually a Playoff Team
Diving deeper into previously scheduled Kickoff Games, another trend emerges. The opposing team has been a fellow playoff team in 11 of the last 12 seasons. Obviously, the potential for rematches of either Championship Game is on the table and probably the first choice scenario for the NFL. The fact that the Steelers, Browns, and Bucs did not make the playoffs lessens the possibility of any of them being chosen for the Kickoff Game. Playoff rematches have occurred in 5 of the 15 Kickoff Games.
In conclusion, a rematch of the Conference Championship Game seems to be the most likely outcome for the 2019 Kickoff Game. If New England wins, they will probably face Kansas City and if Los Angeles wins they will likely face New Orleans. Home teams are 13-2 in Kickoff Games featuring defending Super Bowl Champions, but one of the only losses was Kansas City upsetting New England in 2017. If the NFL opts to go with another team rather than a rematch, it would seem that Pittsburgh and Chicago are the next best options in line for the Patriots and Rams. Even though Pittsburgh did not make the playoffs, the team is still a large national draw and NBC does love to feature the Steelers. If the NFL bucks the trends noted above, a matchup between the Patriots and Cowboys could happen. Chicago would fit all of the criteria for the Rams, a conference opponent that made the playoffs.
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