The NFL had an epiphany in 2002. Putting an extra game on Thursday night in Week 1 was something nobody could complain about. Thus, the NFL’s kickoff game was born.
The first two kickoff games were random matchups. In 2004 the NFL had another great idea, putting the defending champions on opening night. It was a brilliant way to start the season.
Mostly the games have been strong matchups. You wouldn’t call the Kansas City Chiefs-Houston Texans a bad matchup, but according to the point spread it’s the worst one we’ve seen on opening night.
At least there should be points. The over/under of 53.5 also matches the highest ever for a kickoff game.
How have defending champs fared vs. the spread in Week 1?
It probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the home team has done quite well in the first game of the NFL season. The defending champs traditionally host, and of course those teams are very good. They also have the emotional boost from raising a banner and having a pregame ceremony.
In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens couldn’t host the opening game due to a conflict with baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, so they started on the road at the Denver Broncos. We’ll throw that game out. Based on Pro Football Reference’s point spread history, defending champs are 8-4-3 against the spread on opening night, not counting the Ravens.
The defending champs have never been an underdog at home to start the season since 2004. That record includes the 2019 New England Patriots, the defending champs who started on Sunday night and covered easily against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The favorite won straight up in 11 of the first 12 kickoff games (again, excluding the 2013 Ravens starting on the road). The 2017 Kansas City Chiefs upset the New England Patriots on the road, but then in 2018 and 2019 the defending champs got back on track and won straight up in their Week 1 game. So since 2004, defending champs who start at home are 13-2 straight up. The 2012 New York Giants were the other defending champ to lose, to the Dallas Cowboys.
All of that points to the Chiefs winning and covering, but this is a large spread for the opening game.
Spread, total are records for NFL kickoff game
Having a spread of 9.5 points for the kickoff game is new. The highest spread before this year was 2014, when the Seattle Seahawks were 8.5-point favorites over the Green Bay Packers. Seattle won by 20. Only five of the 16 opening games had spreads of a touchdown or more, and one was the unusual Broncos-Ravens game in 2013, when the defending champion Ravens were 7.5-point underdogs on the road.
This is also an unusual season, of course. The Chiefs will have just 22 percent capacity, or about 15,000 fans, for the opener due to COVID-19 restrictions. It’s better than no fans for a special night at Arrowhead Stadium, but it will still be different. Imagine the difference if a full stadium of Chiefs fans was celebrating the team’s first Super Bowl title in 50 years.
The over/under says that oddsmakers expect a high-scoring game. The total is 53.5, and that matches the highest total for a kickoff game. The total was 54.5 late last week but has dropped a bit. Only three kickoff games have had a total of 50 or more. There have been seven overs, eight unders and one push on the totals for the defending champions’ first game since 2004.
If oddsmakers are thinking there will be less offense with a crazy offseason and no preseason games, they don’t think that will apply to these two teams.
The last time we saw an NFL game, the Chiefs won and covered the spread in Super Bowl LIV. To repeat that on Thursday, they’ll have to cover an unusually large Week 1 spread.
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