Words by Jack Franks
The NFL season returns on Thursday, September 7, when the Detroit Lions visit the Kansas City Chiefs, nearly seven months after the latter defeated the Philadelphia Eagles to claim their third Super Bowl.
As is customary, the season commences the first week following Labor Day weekend.
Starting the NFL season around Labor Day weekend has been a thing for quite a while, a moment in time when summer’s winding down and people are getting back into their regular routines after a break.
So, the NFL kicks things off with a unique game right after Labor Day on Thursday. The “Kickoff Game” signals the start of a new season before the action gets going with a roster of games on Sunday and Monday.
This tradition is about capturing the buzz and excitement as summer ends, and people are all revved up for some football, and it’s delivered memorable and iconic duels over the years.
The Kickoff Game started in 2002 on Thursday, September 5, under the leadership of then–NFL marketing executive John Collins and then–NFL Senior Vice President of Special Events Jim Steeg.
It was conceived to boost economic recovery in the New York and Washington areas after 9/11. It was considered a success, increasing NFL sponsorships by $1.9 billion over the next 14 months.
Muscle and Health remembers some of the best opening day NFL Kickoff Games since its inception.
2002: San Francisco 49ers 16, New York Giants 13
Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey
The Giants’ offense managed to rack up 361 yards in total, although they only managed to score a single touchdown against the 49ers. This was attributed to the three interceptions thrown by Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. On the defensive side, the Giants effectively contained 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, holding him to 166 passing yards on 16-of-26 completions. However, it was a crucial late-game drive that ultimately turned the tide in favor of San Francisco.
After a one-yard touchdown by Tiki Barber that leveled the game, the 49ers embarked on a pivotal drive to seal their victory. The drive commenced with a 33-yard catch-and-run by Terrell Owens, who had four receptions for 41 yards, bringing the 49ers deep into the Giants’ territory at the 37-yard line. With five plays left, 49ers kicker Jose Cortez successfully converted a 36-yard field goal, propelling San Francisco to a lead with a mere six seconds remaining on the clock.
2011: Green Bay Packers 42, New Orleans Saints 34
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
Seventy-six points were shared between the two teams as they dueled in a classic Kickoff Game. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are two of the NFL’s greatest-ever players, and they gained a lot of respect for each other in this memorable meeting.
The Packers’ defense of their Super Bowl title commenced with a strong start, as Rodgers connected with his familiar target Greg Jennings for the opening touchdown. The misery for the Saints continued as Jordy Nelson contributed another touchdown for the Packers in the initial ten minutes. However, the action-packed first quarter had more in store. James Sparks turned along Green Bay drive into a six-point play, complemented by Mason Crosby’s successful point-after attempt, boosting the Packers’ lead to 28-17 by halftime.
Randall Cobb’s spectacular 108-yard kick return etched its place as one of the longest return touchdowns in the history of the NFL. Despite the challenge, Brees maintained his composure, tossing another touchdown pass to narrow the gap to a single score at halftime. Compared to the rest of the game, the fourth quarter was quite eventful, with both teams scoring just one touchdown apiece.
2012: Dallas Cowboys 24, New York Giants 17
MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey
This matchup took place on a Wednesday night, a strategic move to sidestep any clash with President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Nevertheless, the game delivered an unexpected outcome. The reigning Super Bowl champions, the Giants, faced a surprising defeat on their home turf at MetLife Stadium against the Cowboys.
Eli Manning, known for orchestrating fourth-quarter comebacks the previous year, couldn’t muster a successful rally this time. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo stole the spotlight by throwing for three touchdowns and amassing 307 passing yards, leading his team to a triumphant 24-17 victory in the opening game of the new season.
2013: Denver Broncos 49, Baltimore Ravens 27
Empower Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado
Less than a year after the Baltimore Ravens pulled off a miraculous victory over the Denver Broncos on the road during the divisional round, these two teams clashed again at the Mile High City to kick off the 2013 season. This unique matchup marked the only instance in Kickoff game history where the reigning Super Bowl champions were away from home. Due to a scheduling conflict with the Orioles, the Ravens couldn’t host the game in Baltimore, leading Joe Flacco and his team to begin their title defense on enemy turf.
The playoff defeat must have fueled Peyton Manning’s determination, as he entered the 2013 season opener against the Baltimore Ravens with a fierce purpose. Displaying an extraordinary performance, he threw an NFL-record-tying seven touchdown passes, propelling his Broncos to a convincing 49-27 victory over the Ravens.
And that was just the beginning for Manning that season. He went on to shatter the record for passing touchdowns in a single season, amassing an astonishing 55, and guided the Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII. Unfortunately, their season ended stunningly as the Seattle Seahawks dominated the Broncos with a 43-8 victory at MetLife Stadium.
2016: Denver Broncos 21, Carolina Panthers 20
Empower Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado
Following their Super Bowl defeat, the Carolina Panthers set their sights on seeking some form of revenge in the opening week by securing a win against the Denver Broncos. The Panthers maintained control throughout most of the game, holding their lead until the fourth quarter. As the game neared its end, they had a chance to secure victory with a field goal.
However, Graham Gano’s attempt at a game-winning 50-yard field goal missed its mark, allowing the Broncos to hold on for a narrow 21-20 victory. The contest primarily turned into a defensive showdown, with both teams struggling to establish consistent offensive momentum. Nonetheless, this thrilling defensive battle marked a compelling start to the 2016 season.
The anticipation leading up to the kickoff of a new season is always palpable, and witnessing this rematch of the Super Bowl unfold right down to the wire was a treat that football fans couldn’t have asked for more during the exciting opening week.
2017: Kansas City Chiefs 42-27 New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
To this day, one of the most stunning upsets in NFL Kickoff Game history remains the Chiefs’ triumph over Tom Brady and the Patriots, sealing a remarkable 42-27 victory at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots had just celebrated a heroic comeback in the Super Bowl, rallying from a 28-3 deficit against the Atlanta Falcons to secure victory eventually. Their reputation as a formidable force only added to the shock of the Chiefs’ win.
The odds were stacked against Kansas City, yet they delivered an awe-inspiring performance that astonished everyone. Led by quarterback Alex Smith, who threw an impressive four touchdowns for 368 yards, the Chiefs outperformed expectations and dismantled the New England team.
2021: Dallas Cowboys 29, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Returning to the venue of their commanding Super Bowl 55 victory, Brady and the Buccaneers stepped onto their home field at Raymond James Stadium to kick off the 2021 season with a much more closely contested match.
Brady initiated the scoring with a touchdown pass to Chris Godwin, setting the tone for an exceptional night of quarterback performances. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys showcased their prowess in the passing game as Prescott racked up an impressive 403 passing yards and delivered three touchdowns on 58 attempts.
With less than two minutes remaining on the clock, Dallas managed to take the lead courtesy of a 48-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein, who came through despite his three missed kicks during the game in this crucial moment. Despite the dwindling time, Brady seemed unfazed. He orchestrated a precision drive for the Buccaneers, positioning them for a potential game-winning field goal. Brady’s final pivotal pass was a 24-yard gem to Godwin, a play that left some speculation about a potential offensive pass interference call.
In the end, Ryan Succop sealed the deal with a successful 36-yard field goal, and with just two seconds left on the clock, Brady secured his fourth victory in an NFL Kickoff game, further solidifying his legendary status.