The National Football League Kickoff game, along with related festivities, marks the official start of the National Football League (NFL) regular season. A single game is held, preceded by a concert and other ceremonies. This first game of the season is usually scheduled for the Thursday following Labor Day and since 2004, it was hosted by the previous season's Super Bowl champions. However, in 2012, the game was moved to Wednesday to prevent conflicts with the acceptance speech of the Democratic National Convention. The remainder of the league plays their opening weekend games the following Sunday and Monday.
The Kickoff Game was introduced in the 2002 season. From 2004 onward, the defending Super Bowl champion has played in the kickoff game every year, and hosted the game in all but one year (2013 being the lone exception, in which the champion played on the road because of a parking conflict).
The Kickoff Game was introduced in the 2002 season, under the leadership of then-NFL marketing executive John Collins and then-NFL Senior Vice President of Special Events Jim Steeg. It was conceived as an effort to boost economic recovery in the New York and Washington areas in the wake of 9/11. It was considered a success, increasing NFL sponsorships by $1.9 billion over the next 14 months.
ESPN televised the first game. In order to do so, ESPN eliminated its traditional late-October Thursday night game (held the weekend of Games 1 and 2 of the World Series), and replaced it with the opening night kickoff game. Because of the success of the first game, the rights to televise both the Kickoff Game and the pregame concert were transferred immediately after the season to ABC as part of their Monday Night Football package. In 2006, NBC acquired the television rights to the Kickoff Game as part of their Sunday Night Football package.
The concept of the NFL champion playing in an opening game was not altogether new, however. From 1934 to 1976, the first game of the pre-season was the Chicago All-Star Game, an exhibition match featuring the previous season's NFL champions against an all-rookie team of college all-stars held annually in Soldier Field in Chicago.
After the merger of the NFL with the All-America Football Conference in 1949, the opening game of the 1950 NFL season was a Saturday night showcase game between the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles and the AAFC champion Cleveland Browns. Billed as the "The World Series of Pro Football" the game matched the 4-time champion Browns against the 2-time champion Eagles and with an attendance of 71,000 was one of the largest pro football crowds to that date.
With the advent of Monday Night Football in 1970 it became common for the Super Bowl champion to appear in a "showcase" game the first weekend of the season. This was the case in 1978–1979, 1983, 1987–1988, 1990–1993, 1996–2000, and 2002–2003.
Defending Super Bowl champions are 11–2 in the Kickoff Game. The New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens are the two only defending Super Bowl champions to have lost. The Giants are also the only home team to have lost in the Kickoff Game twice - once in the very first edition of the contest, when the defending Super Bowl winner was not yet a regular participant, and again in 2012.
2003: The game's popularity and success saw it move to ABC as part of the Monday Night Football package. In order for the kickoff game to fit into the schedule, ABC dropped the Monday Night Football game held in the last week of the NFL season. This game had become increasingly unpopular because it often lacked playoff significance, and because of the (undesirable) possibility that a team playing on Monday night in week 17 might have to play a playoff game the following Saturday. In return, ESPN (which, like ABC, is owned by Disney) received a week 17 Saturday night game. While defending Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay were not selected for the Thursday night game, they did play a nationally-televised game at Philadelphia four nights later on MNF. Instead, the Washington Redskins defeated the New York Jets 16-13.
2004: The tradition began that the kickoff game would be hosted by the defending Super Bowl champions. After the "wardrobe malfunction" incident at Super Bowl XXXVIII, the NFL initially canceled future plans for concerts in conjunction with the NFL Kickoff game. Later in the year, however, the decision was reversed, and instead a 10-second broadcast delay was put in place.
2006: With the change in television contracts, the Kickoff Game was moved to NBC, who held the rights to Sunday Night Football. The game opposite the first weekend of World Series games was once again removed to compensate. (The Monday night game at the end of the season, however, was not revived. Instead, after an impromptu experiment in 2005, a Monday night doubleheader was scheduled for the same weekend as the kickoff game.)
2008: The league and NBC agreed to move up the opening kickoff of the kickoff game, to 7:00 p.m., in order for coverage of the Republican National Convention to not compete with the game. That game featured the Redskins and Giants. The game was also be the first to be carried by Internet television in the United States, as did all Sunday Night Football games in the 2008 season.
2010: The Saints, winners of Super Bowl XLIV, hosted the kickoff game at the Superdome against the Vikings, a rematch of the previous season's NFC Championship Game. There was consideration of a match-up against the Steelers (to create a contest between the last two Super Bowl champions) but it did not come to fruition due to various logistical reasons.
2011: The Packers hosted the 2011 Kickoff Game after winning Super Bowl XLV. They defeated the New Orleans Saints, a match-up of the winners of the two previous Super Bowls, the first time this has occurred. The Saints are only the second team to have played in two consecutive kickoff games, and the first to do so not by winning two consecutive Super Bowls. In the third quarter, the Packers' Randall Cobb returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown, tying the NFL record for the longest such return.
2012: Similar to the situation in 2008, the NFL was faced with the prospect of having to compete with a national political convention, this time the Democratic National Convention. Instead of moving the kickoff to 7:00 p.m. like in 2008, or even opening up the season on a Thursday like in past years, the league instead decided to move the 2012 Kickoff Game one day earlier to Wednesday, September 5. The New York Giants, winner of Super Bowl XLVI, hosted their rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.
2013: After winning Super Bowl XLVII, the Baltimore Ravens were to have hosted the 2013 Kickoff Game on September 5. However, this was on the same day as a home game for the Baltimore Orioles, whose stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, shares parking with the Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium. (The Orioles could not move their game to the afternoon, because they and their opponent were playing night games in other cities the preceding day.) The Ravens instead played on the road against the Denver Broncos. The 2013 Kickoff game was a rematch of the previous season's AFC Divisional Playoff game. During this game, Peyton Manning became one of only six players to have thrown seven touchdowns in a single game. He added to this feat by doing it without throwing an interception, something that has only been done once before by Y.A. Tittle during the 1962 NFL season. The Ravens also had the most points scored against them in franchise history. They also suffered the biggest margin of defeat by a defending Super Bowl champion on opening day in NFL history.
2015: The New England Patriots, after winning Super Bowl XLIX, hosted the 2015 Kickoff Game on September 10 at Gillette Stadium, with the Pittsburgh Steelers as their opponent. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was originally not going to play due to his four-game suspension as a result of his involvement in the Deflategate scandal, but a court threw out the suspension on September 3, 2015 and ordered the league to let him play. It also marked the first time NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not attend a Kickoff Game, stating that he did not want to be a distraction.
2016: The Denver Broncos hosted the 2016 Kickoff Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High against the Carolina Panthers on September 8, in a Super Bowl 50 rematch. (As the Republican and Democratic conventions were both scheduled for July 2016, there was no scheduling conflict with them as there was in 2008 and 2012, nor were there conflicts with any other sports team in Denver that night.) The Broncos debuted Trevor Siemian as their new starting quarterback after both quarterbacks who started games in 2015 left the team; Peyton Manning (who played the entirety of Super Bowl 50) retired and Brock Osweiler left as a free agent.
|2002*||September 5||San Francisco 49ers||16||New York Giants||13||Giants Stadium||ESPN|
|2003*||September 4||New York Jets||13||Washington Redskins||16||FedEx Field||ABC|
|2004||September 9||Indianapolis Colts||24||New England Patriots||27||Gillette Stadium||ABC|
|2005||September 8||Oakland Raiders||20||New England Patriots||30||Gillette Stadium||ABC|
|2006||September 7||Miami Dolphins||17||Pittsburgh Steelers||28||Heinz Field||NBC|
|2007||September 6||New Orleans Saints||10||Indianapolis Colts||41||RCA Dome||NBC|
|2008||September 4||Washington Redskins||7||New York Giants||16||Giants Stadium||NBC|
|2009||September 10||Tennessee Titans||10||Pittsburgh Steelers||13||Heinz Field||NBC|
|2010||September 9||Minnesota Vikings||9||New Orleans Saints||14||Louisiana Superdome||NBC|
|2011||September 8||New Orleans Saints||34||Green Bay Packers||42||Lambeau Field||NBC|
|2012**||September 5||Dallas Cowboys||24||New York Giants||17||MetLife Stadium||NBC|
|2013+||September 5||Baltimore Ravens||27||Denver Broncos||49||Sports Authority Field at Mile High||NBC|
|2014||September 4||Green Bay Packers||16||Seattle Seahawks||36||CenturyLink Field||NBC|
|2015||September 10||Pittsburgh Steelers||21||New England Patriots||28||Gillette Stadium||NBC|
|2016||September 8||Carolina Panthers||20||Denver Broncos||21||Sports Authority Field at Mile High||NBC|
|2017||September 7||TBD||0||New England Patriots||0||Gillette Stadium||NBC|
Winning team and score labeled in bold.
* – Game was not yet hosted by the defending Super Bowl champions.
** – Game played on a Wednesday instead of the usual Thursday.
+ - Defending Super Bowl champions played on road due to scheduling conflict with MLB.
|New England Patriots||4||3||0||0||1.000||85||65|
|San Francisco 49ers||1||1||0||0||1.000||16||13|
|Green Bay Packers||2||1||1||0||.500||58||70|
|New Orleans Saints||3||1||2||0||.333||58||92|
|New York Giants||3||1||2||0||.333||46||47|
|New York Jets||1||0||1||0||.000||13||16|
|Year||Network||Household Rating/share||Viewers (live plus same day)||Ref.|