Every year since 2004, the NFL has put its defending champion on the big stage to start the following season by putting them on television in the league’s annual Thursday night kickoff game. This game showcases the champion by letting them raise their championship banner in prime time while the rest of the football world watches enviously. And typically, public perception is that defending champions perform well both straight up and against the spread in this game. But does reality match the perception surrounding this annual tradition?
To get a good idea of just how well defending champions have done in this game, it is worth looking back at every single kickoff game that a defending champion has been a part of. The tradition started in 2004 with the New England Patriots taking on the Indianapolis Colts, and has taken place every year since. Looking at the 14 kickoff games that have gone on prior to 2018’s clash between the Eagles and Falcons, there is a lot of information to be taken from them.
NFL Season Openers Straight Up
First, let’s take a look at these games from a straight up perspective, just looking at who is winning the kickoff games. More often than not, the defending champion is winning these games straight up. That isn’t entirely shocking, given that the team that just won the Super Bowl usually doesn’t make too many changes, and is one of the best teams in the league.
Defending champions in Thursday night opening games are 11-3 straight up since this tradition has started. That is a win rate just shy of 80%. Of course, that clip is far less profitable when betting on favorites to win games straight up than it would be against the spread. We’ll take a look at the success rate of these teams against the spread in a bit.
As for the teams who have won straight up as defending champions in the Thursday night opener, only one was a true shock. That was the Kansas City Chiefs going into New England and beating the Patriots by a final score of 42-27 to open the 2017 season. The Chiefs winning that game wasn’t the surprising part, but how the Chiefs won the game was what was shocking. Kansas City threw the ball at will on a Patriots defense that, later that season, turned out to be one of the league’s best teams. This game was also remembered as Kareem Hunt’s coming out party, as the running back established himself as an elite back both on the ground and in the receiving game.
The other two defending champions to lose their Thursday night game to start the following campaign were the New York Giants in 2012 and the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. The Giants losing to Dallas wasn’t entirely surprising, given how evenly matched games between those two teams tend to be, as well as how inconsistent the Giants were as a team during that time period. But the Ravens’ loss to start the 2013 season was interesting, and worth a closer look.
Given that the whole point of the NFL’s kickoff game on Thursday night is to have the defending champions raise their championship banner, it was weird seeing the champion start their season on the road. But that’s exactly what happened in 2013, when the Ravens had to go to Denver to take on the Broncos at Mile High. This was the result of a scheduling conflict between the Ravens and the Baltimore Orioles, throwing a wrench into the celebration of the Ravens.
As a result, the Broncos went into that game as touchdown favorites, and blew the Ravens out to start their title defense by a score of 49-27. This was also the second year of Peyton Manning’s tenure as Broncos quarterback, where the offense really hit its stride en route to a Super Bowl appearance, so it made sense that this was the first time where the defending champion was an underdog for the first game of the season since this tradition started.
During the course of this game’s history, the defending champion had all of the success in the early portions, with things balancing out in recent seasons. Defending champions in this game went 8-0 in the first eight kickoff games that featured the champions. Since then, defending champions are just 3-3 straight up in the games, with underdogs in the Cowboys and Chiefs winning outright. All three of those wins against the champions have come in 2012 or later, which coincides with a noticeable shift in the games themselves.
It should also be noted that around 2012 these kickoff games started taking on a slightly different shape than they had previously. Whereas the early versions of the game were seen as more of a homecoming—type game, where the champs were able to raise their banner before playing against a decent, but ultimately harmless, opponent, those tasked with creating the schedule started making these games rivalry games or battles between two of the best teams in the league to generate more interest in the event. In many cases, the game has become the spot where rematches from memorable playoff games have been made to take place.
A great example of the shift in the kickoff games can be seen by looking at some of the early matchups and comparing them with recent editions. In 2005, the New England Patriots played the Oakland Raiders in the league’s kickoff game. Oakland was led by quarterback Kerry Collins, who was past his prime when he helped the Giants get to the Super Bowl five years before that. Oakland went 4-12 in that season, finishing dead last in the AFC West under Norv Turner.
In 2006, a similar situation presented itself, as the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to start their title defense against the Miami Dolphins. Miami had a little buzz surrounding it as the team had just brought in Daunte Culpepper to be their quarterback, with Nick Saban hired to be their head coach. But the whole experiment failed miserably, as the Dolphins finished that season 6-10 and managed to finish last in the AFC East of all divisions.
Today, the season opening game is always meant to feature more known quantities, so to speak. The league has put playoff teams against one another on a regular basis since 2012, or at least teams that are always in or near the playoff race. The series has featured playoff rematches in every year since 2013, including a Super Bowl 50 rematch between the Broncos and Panthers to start the 2016 season. All of this is to say that the league’s annual kickoff game is far from a homecoming game now.
NFL Season Openers Against The Spread
Looking at the history of this game against the spread, one would expect an even balance of wins and losses for the defending champion over the course of the event. That would prevent bettors from simply backing the defending champion at home blindly. Instead, the history of the NFL’s kickoff game shows that the team starting their championship defense has had overwhelming success in the game, albeit success that comes with a few caveats.
Defending champions have gone 7-4-3 against the spread during the history of these season opening games, according to spread data from Pro Football Reference. That would mean, if you bet every one of those games for one unit, that backing the defending champion to cover the spread would have resulted in a positive yield of 2.6 units. That certainly isn’t bad, considering that it’s been a bet that could be made without putting any thought into it.
Things went especially well for backers of the defending champions in the first five editions of the league’s championship celebration game. The defending champs went 4-0-1 in the first five times the game was held in its current form. During those five games, the champions won by double digits on three occasions, by nine on one occasion, and by a field goal for the only push in the history of the series to that point.
However, after those first five games, things have leveled off significantly to the point that bettors now really have to pay attention to what they are doing in these contests. In the nine games that followed that initial five game run for the defending champions, the defending champions are just 3-4-2 against the spread. This means that backing the defending champion has produced a negative return on investment of 1.4 units over the last nine editions of the game.
Looking at an even smaller sample size, the last three kickoff games have been brutal for backers of the defending champions. Teams celebrating last year’s title are 0-2-1 against the spread over the last three editions of the game. That is a negative return on investment of 2.2 units for bettors wagering to win one unit on each of their wagers. During those last three games, the underdog has won outright once, while the favorite has failed to cover one time.
It is possible that the recent run of success for the underdogs has to do with a betting public that continues to grow in terms of both the number of bettors playing as well as the amount of money that they are injecting into the industry. With more and more recreational bettors throwing their hats into the ring due to the legalization of the practice in many states, it is possible that lines are becoming slightly more underdog friendly to combat the influx of public, often pro-favorite money.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with betting favorites. But, like eating ice cream or drinking wine, betting on favorites or underdogs should be done in moderation and only when it is advantageous to do so. For a while, it was very advantageous to bet on the favorites in the NFL’s Thursday night season opening game. However, that appears to have cooled off in recent seasons, despite public perception often still falling into the belief that the home team is the right play as a favorite in these games. It will be interesting to see if there is another course correction in this series over the next few years, or if the underdogs will continue to get the better of the champions.
NFL Season Opener Totals
As for totals, the amount of points scored in season opening games featuring defending champions has varied wildly. There have been multiple instances of teams combining for 23 points, as well as a couple of instances of teams putting up 76 points. How many points are scored in any of these games depends on the matchups and which strengths are squaring off with which weaknesses, but there has not been a consistent pattern over the duration of this series with regard to the total.
In the 14 editions of these season openers from 2004 to 2017, the over has hit seven times, the under has hit six times, and there has been one push. That one push came in the first season opening game to feature a defending champion, with the over going 7-6 in the 13 games that have followed. Looking a little more closely, though, some patterns have emerged over a smaller overall sample.
Over the last five of these games, the over has hit four times with the under hitting just once. This coincides very well with the change in philosophy surrounding this game. Whereas one of the teams participating used to be traditionally weaker, both teams are now usually strong enough to win the Super Bowl in that season. And teams that tend to be stronger tend to be that way thanks to their ability to score points. So in terms of the total, the math equation really has been as simple as “more good teams = more points scored”.
That, of course, does not mean that the over will continue to hit at such a consistent rate. It just so happens that the teams that have won the Super Bowl recently are strong offensive teams for the most part. That stretch has featured games including the Broncos with Peyton Manning, the Russell Wilson led Seahawks, the Tom Brady led Patriots, and two great defenses in the Broncos and Panthers to where the total was on the low side.
So what does that information tell you about betting on the season opening game against the spread? Well, it should tell you that betting on the defending champion is not as sure a thing as it used to be. Thanks to the aforementioned change in how the kickoff games were structured, the first game of the NFL season is no longer meant to be a tribute to the team that won the Super Bowl the year before. It is now meant to be one of the most exciting games of the year, no matter what the result ends up being. Therefore, where the champion was poised to get an easy game to start the season in previous years, that simply is not the case anymore as the numbers show.
When it comes to betting on the total, knowing that the recent trend has been that the games have gone over the total is good to keep in your back pocket. But it, of course, isn’t everything. Seeing how each defense matches up with each offense is important to having success when betting totals, and requires a good bit of research into how each roster is composed. This may sound like a lot of work, but any good handicapper knows that finding value in spreads and totals is work.
All of this is also evidence that evaluating games on a case-by-case basis is the way to go. That is the only way to handicap football games, but it is worth mentioning in a setting where so many bettors think that they can blindly back the champion en route to a cover. Knowing how each roster has changed since last season and what those changes mean for each team is just as important as ever, as is knowing which injuries will have a short-term impact on each roster.
For example, in this season’s kickoff game, the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons are set to square off in a rematch of their memorable clash in the Divisional round last season. And, just like in that game, the Eagles will be without Carson Wentz. The Eagles’ starting quarterback is still recovering from the knee surgery he had to get last season after taking a hit against the Los Angeles Rams. That means that Nick Foles will be the team’s starting quarterback, just as he was in last year’s playoff game against the Falcons.
In the small sample size of the playoffs, Foles was incredible for the Eagles en route to their championship. He completed over 70% of his passes for a team that didn’t need their starting quarterback to succeed given how much better they were than everyone at the offensive and defensive line positions. But this season, Foles is certainly a candidate to regress to the mean, which could spell trouble in this game.
Foles is a career 60% passer, who completed passes at a rate that was over 10% better than his average during last year’s playoff run. Given all of the games Foles had under his belt prior to last year’s run, it’s safe to say that Foles is closer to the 60% passer we’ve seen over several years than he is the 70% passer we saw for a few weeks. Keep an eye on that during his time filling in for Wentz, but especially here against the Falcons in a game where the Eagles are favored.
Also, keep an eye on the impact that the weather has on this game. The last time the Falcons and Eagles played, the cold weather did a great job of helping an already strong Eagles defense shut down Matt Ryan and the Falcons passing attack. It was an extremely cold night when the two teams played, which worked directly in the favor of an Eagles team that was hanging its hat on its line play and was already looking to run the ball more with its backup quarterback being called into action.
This time around, the weather will be much nicer as the teams play in a late-summer matchup rather than in the dead of winter. That change should be a big help for Matt Ryan who, while used to slinging the ball in the cold at Boston College, won’t have quite as much to overcome this time around. And, perhaps more importantly, will have a healthy Julio Jones that he can throw to after an offseason to heal his lower body injuries.
Ryan will also have a year of experience playing under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian under his belt, something he did not have last year. After Kyle Shanahan left the Falcons to become the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the Falcons saw its offense take a notable step back. But in their second season with Sarkisian, expect things to move closer to where they were before, with the team becoming less predictable.
In thinking about the spread with regard to this particular game, some of the criteria mentioned above can favor the Eagles, while some favor the Falcons. Philly has the advantage of being the defending champion and playing at home, while the Falcons have fewer injury concerns that they have to reckon with, making for a game that could go either way between two of the NFC’s best teams.
As far as the total is concerned, both teams combined for a low scoring game in the cold weather during the playoffs, which could artificially drive down the total for this game in warmer weather. And while Julio Jones is back healthy for the Falcons on one side, Nick Foles could be in danger of regressing back to the mean on the other, which could determine which side of the total is landed on.