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One week out from 2015 NFL kickoff, ranking previous opening games

We're one week out from the 2015 NFL kickoff game, and Don Banks can't remember an opener surrounded by so much drama (and suspension) than this year's. How have previous NFL kickoff games stacked up? 

With the NFL’s painfully long preseason nearly in the books, we’re only a week away from the kickoff of the league’s 96th season, and the opening game that will receive center-stage treatment next Thursday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro: the defending AFC North champion Steelers visiting the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.

Since 2002, the NFL has built its schedule around the idea of featuring a glamor game to start things off every season. But has there ever been an opener with an unusual backdrop surrounding the game and roster subtractions that have already occurred that compares to this year's? While Deflategate won’t wind up costing New England’s Tom Brady the chance to quarterback his team on the night the Patriots hang their fourth Super Bowl banner, we do know that young play-makers like Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, as well as New England’s LeGarrette Blount, will definitely miss the festivities due to league suspensions. (Tune in to find out how the Patriots will cover DarriusHeyward-Bey!) 

I get it. One seasons ends with the Super Bowl, and the next starts with the Suspension Bowl. Brilliant synergy.

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So while Thursday night isn’t going to wind up treating us to a matchup of Jimmy Garoppolo versus Ben Roethlisberger—instead we get the duel between quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings in Brady and Big Ben after all—there’s plenty more intrigue and anticipation for discovering what stew awaits us at the Big Razor Blade. At least in that slow-down-and-stare-at-the-car-crash sort of way. (Not that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will do his gawking in person, having announced that he'll skip this year's opener in order to not distract from the games.)

This year’s watered-down Steelers-Patriots pairing got me thinking about the previous 13 NFL Kickoff games, and how they stacked up in terms of drama produced and intriguing storylines. I’ve covered 11 of those games in person, and looking back, many of them had some fairly unique circumstances surrounding the event. Here’s my rankings from best to worst:

1. 2011: Green Bay 42, New Orleans 34

After the long and messy labor stand-off that marred the 2011 offseason, this game was exactly the tonic that the league and its fans needed. It matched the previous two Super Bowl champions for the first time in the series, and represented the most combined points (76) ever scored in the kickoff game. Packers rookie Randall Cobb had a breathtaking debut, catching a touchdown pass and running back a third-quarter kickoff for a league-record-tying 108-yard touchdown return—a decision that was in response to the league rule change promoting touchbacks in favor of safety. Aaron Rodgers threw for three touchdowns and 312 yards, but the game wasn’t decided until the final play, when Green Bay stuffed Saints rookie running back Mark Ingram from the one yard line.

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2. 2004: New England 27, Indianapolis 24

The first time the NFL gave the defending Super Bowl champion the honor of hosting the Kickoff game, it was a rematch of the 2003 AFC Championship game that had been played in the snow flurries in Foxboro the January before. Alas, it was the same result for Peyton Manning and the losing Colts, albeit by a closer score than the 24–14 Patriots win in the playoffs. Tom Brady threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns as New England won its 16th straight game including the postseason, two short of the league record the Patriots would go on to break in October.

3. 2009: Pittsburgh 13, Tennessee 10 (OT)

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In the first—and only—overtime game in the Kickoff game series, the Steelers won on a 33-yard Jeff Reed at 4:32 into the extra period, boosting the home team’s winning streak to seven games. Pittsburgh won the coin toss in overtime and never let the Titans gain possession of the ball (relax, the rule has been changed, somewhat). Ben Roethlisberger threw a whopping 43 passes, completing 33 of them for 363 yards, posting the 16th fourth-quarterback comeback of his sixth-year NFL career. Santonio Holmes had nine catches for 131 yards, the exactly same numbers he posted in the previous season’s Super Bowl, when Roethlisberger connected with him for the game-winning 6-yard touchdown pass in the final minute, beating Arizona 27–23.

4. 2002: San Francisco 16, New York Giants 13

Originally conceived by league officials as a way to boost economic recovery in the New York and Washington areas in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Giants and Washington were chosen as host teams in the first two years of the series. But the Giants didn’t take advantage of their familiar environs, becoming the only home team to lose in the first 11 Kickoff games. It was an ugly, sloppy affair for the most part, but it did have a thrilling conclusion, with the Giants tying the game inside of the two minutes on a one-yard Tiki Barber touchdown run, and the 49ers winning it on a 36-yard Jose Cortez field goal with six seconds remaining, a score set up by a clutch 33-yard Terrell Owens catch and run. It wound up being a preview of a classic playoff game that New York and San Francisco played the next January. In that game, the Giants led 38–14 in the third quarter, but wound up blowing that 24-point lead and losing 39–38, as newly signed 41-year-old longsnapper Trey Junkin botched two field goal snaps in the final three minutes.

5. 2012: Dallas 24, New York Giants 17

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The Giants became the first home team to lose in this series in 10 years—since their 2002 loss to San Francisco—and this one really hurt because Dallas got revenge for losing their NFC East title showdown game at New York in their Week 17 meeting of 2011. That’s the game that sparked the Giants on their way to a second Super Bowl win in five seasons, and left the Cowboys contemplating yet another season-ending loss that cost them a trip to the playoffs. The replacement refs also made their debut in this game, without incident. But that would change soon enough, as that dubious idea would be revealed a multi-faceted disaster for the league. Cowboys receiver Kevin Olgetree was his team’s secret weapon, catching eight passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns, in a game that was moved a night earlier to Wednesday, so as to not conflict with President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

6. 2003: Washington 16, New York Jets 13

Steve Spurrier’s second and final season in Washington at least started well enough, with the home team earning a narrow win by the same score of the previous year’s game, on yet another late field goal. This time it was John Hall’s 33-yarder with five seconds remaining that boosted Washington, who got good performances from all four of the “JetSkins’’ signed away from New York that offseason during free agency: Hall, receiver Laveranues Coles, return man Chad Morton and guard Randy Thomas.

7. 2010: New Orleans 14, Minnesota 9

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This one was a highly anticipated rematch of the bruising 2009 NFC Championship Game, that 31–28 Saints overtime win that wound up playing such a prominent role in the team’s looming bounty scandal of 2012. It wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as the playoff meeting though, and represented the lowest-scoring victory in the five-year tenure of New Orleans head coach Sean Payton. Starting his 20th and final NFL season (we think), Brett Favre was a pedestrian 15-of-27 with one interception and a 71.7 passer rating. Drew Brees was much better, completing 27-of-36 for 237 yards and a touchdown as the Saints celebrated their franchise’s finest moment—their Super Bowl triumph of the previous February—one last time.

8. 2013: Denver 49, Baltimore 27

This one was memorable for several reasons, not the least of which was Peyton Manning throwing seven touchdown passes (and an interception) to become only the sixth passer to record that many in a single game. Then there was the venue. It was in Denver. Instead of Baltimore, which had earned the right to host the game with its dramatic Super Bowl win over San Francisco in February. But the game was moved to the Mile High City when the NFL and the Baltimore Orioles could not come to an agreement on scheduling. The Orioles had a home game against the White Sox scheduled for that same day, and because the Ravens and O’s share parking lot space, they can’t play anywhere near in the same time slots. The Orioles wouldn’t budge, so the NFL blinked and moved the game to Denver, where the Ravens had upset the top-seeded Broncos 38-35 in overtime in a thrilling AFC Divisional playoff game in January (think Rahim Moore letting Jacoby Jones get behind him late in regulation). Baltimore lost their opener and missed the playoffs by one game at 8-8, the first time the Ravens weren’t in the postseason in the six-year John Harbaugh coaching era.

9. 2006: Pittsburgh 28, Miami 17

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If he misses the game next Thursday night, Brady won’t be the first star quarterback to go that route. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger underwent an emergency appendectomy four days before the defending champion Steelers met the visiting Dolphins, forcing veteran backup Charlie Batch into the starting lineup. That was the same year that Big Ben also had his well-chronicled motorcycle accident in June in Pittsburgh, so it was a rough go all around for No. 7 in 2006. No matter. Batch tossed three touchdown passes, including a game-icing 87-yarder to tight end Heath Miller in the fourth quarter. While replays showed Miller stepped out of bounds between the 1 and the 2, Dolphins second-year head coach Nick Saban hesitated before throwing his challenge flag. By the time he did, referee Walt Coleman (there’s that man again) didn’t see it, and never whistled the game to a stop for a review. Saban that night started Daunte Culpepper at quarterback for the first time, passing on free agent Drew Brees that offseason. Maybe that’s when Saban decided college football was his real calling.

10. 2008: New York Giants 16, Washington 7

With the newly retired Michael Strahan playing the role of pre-game G-Men cheerleader, New York scored on its first four possessions and then cruised to a ho-hum win over a Washington team that featured the debut of head coach Jim Zorn. (Forgot about the forgettable Zorn era in D.C., didn’t you?). There was little noteworthy about this game other than its start time was bumped up to 7 p.m., in order to not conflict with the acceptance speech that Sen. John McCain would give that night at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

11. 2014: Seattle 36, Green Bay 16

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Visiting Seattle for the first time since the infamous “Fail Mary’’ touchdown call exposed the replacement refs for the frauds they were on that Monday night in September 2012, the Packers again went home disappointed, getting blown out every which way by the champion Seahawks. Seattle shredded the Green Bay run defense for 207 yards, with Marshawn Lynch rumbling for 110 yards and two scores. Aaron Rodgers was limited to just 189 passing yards against Seattle, and stayed away from Richard Sherman’s side of the field all night long. This game wasn’t close, but it did serve as a preview of last season’s wildly entertaining NFC Championship Game, which Seattle some how won 28-22 in overtime, after the Packers self-destructed in the fourth quarter to blow what looked to be a near-certain Super Bowl berth.

12. 2005: New England 30, Oakland 20

I’m not sure how the Raiders, coming off a 5–11 season in 2004, ever got chosen for this centerpiece game, but there was a little foreshadowing at work in the Patriots’ 10-point win. Oakland’s highlight of the night was a 73-yard touchdown bomb to newly acquired receiver Randy Moss, who two years later was a touchdown-scoring machine for the almost-perfect 2007 Patriots. Brady was Brady once again, throwing for 306 yards and two touchdowns.

13. 2007: Indianapolis 41, New Orleans 10

The defending Super Bowl champion Colts threw themselves a heck of a second-half party, outscoring the Saints 31–0 to break a 10–10 halftime time at the RCA Dome. It was a bit bittersweet for Indy quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw for 288 yards and three touchdown passes to rout the Saints team his dad, Archie Manning, starred for, and his own hometown team. After an offseason dominated by player discipline issues involving Michael Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the game: “I think we’re ready now to get the focus back on football.” Where’s that Goodell when you need him today?