Guessing The NFL Thursday Night Opener

I hate to admit it, but trying to guess who the NFL’s season-opening Thursday Night game will be each year has become a little bit of a pastime. It usually starts in the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl when we know the identity of the host team. I’m a little behind schedule this year, but after perusing this year’s Hall of Fame induction class, my first thought was “looks like Bears-Ravens in the HOF game” and that was verified this week. So while I’m hot I’ll double down on taking my guess on who will be at Lincoln Financial Field on September 6 when the Eagles hoist their championship banner.

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As soon as the regular season ended, we knew who everyone’s opponents for 2018 would be. The Eagles will play the following….

*The usual home-and-home against their three NFC East rivals (Cowboys, Redskins, Giants)
*By rotation, every team in the NFC South (Saints, Panthers, Falcons, Buccaneers)
*By rotation, every team in the AFC South (Jaguars, Titans, Texans, Colts)
*The other two division champs from the NFC (Vikings, Rams)

The league has already announced the home-and-away schedules. The Rams might have been an interesting pick—if Carson Wentz were healthy, he could have gone head-to-head with Jared Goff, a battle between the first two overall picks in the 2016 NFL draft. But Philly goes to LA, so that one is out. New Orleans and Drew Brees would have been compelling prime-time theater, but that game will be in the Bayou. Jacksonville was nearly the opponent in the Super Bowl, but that game will be in London.

So that leave us with the the three home divisional games, the Vikings, Panthers and Falcons as credible prime-time games. Philly also plays Houston and Indianapolis at home, and if DeShaun Watson or Andrew Luck are assured to be healthy, I suppose that could be interesting. But I’d be extremely shocked if the league went that direction. So let’s focus on the key six…

*New York Giants: A Philly-NY battle is never bad for television ratings and this is the Eagles’ biggest rival. No doubt unveiling the banner in the presence of New Yorkers would go a long way for the psyche of this city. But the Giants were also hideous last year and there’s no reason to assume things will get better.

*Washington Redskins: Another game with traditional juice that’s guaranteed good TV ratings and a team that just made the biggest trade of the offseason, getting quarterback Alex Smith. But the Redskins lately are relevant only in the lives of those of us who love them. There’s too many other attractive teams. And in either case, with this being the first NFL game of the season we’re talking about, I would think TV ratings likely hit close to their ceiling regardless of who’s playing.

*Minnesota Vikings: A rematch of the NFC Championship Game definitely qualifies as compelling. But Minnesota has as much uncertainty at quarterback right now as the Eagles do. After a year in which QB play was widely panned, does the NFL really want to make its debut game one with potentially Nick Foles and either Case Keenum or Sam Bradford behind center? Although admittedly, Bradford’s return to Philly is a juicy story.

*Carolina Falcons & Atlanta Falcons: I’m grouping these two together, because the arguments are the same. Each is a team with a recent Super Bowl trip and a quarterback who won the MVP award. Both were playoff teams in 2017 and both will have high expectations this year. Both would be exceptional choices for the Thursday Night opener.

*Dallas Cowboys: This all boils down to how you view the Cowboys. You could say it’s just a non-playoff team whose quarterback became exposed when Ezekiel Elliot was suspended last year. Or you could say that same quarterback, Dak Prescott, is only a year removed from Offensive Rookie of the Year, Elliot will be on the field and few teams stir the media juices like the Cowboys. This would be the battle to see if Dallas is going to be ready to dethrone the champs in their own division and the result will linger in the standings and tiebreakers all season-long.

That description probably gave away that I think the pick should be Dallas—as it was in 2012, when they went to New York for the Giants’ banner unveiling, the last time this happened for an NFC East team. And I think that’s where the league will go. Any of the six opponents discussed would make for a good game. The Falcons and Panthers would make for an exceptional game. But Eagles-Cowboys to open the season in this environment? Let the rumble begin.