Cover 3: Key matchups in the biggest NFL Week 1 games
The blockbuster season opener between the Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Rams may not have delivered a suitable contest on the occasion, but the rest of the NFL’s Week 1 schedule throws up several potential thrillers.
There are revenge games, intriguing divisional matchups, and face-offs between some of the league’s glamorous franchises and players.
But which of the games on the program are likely to offer the best contests? We can give you some insight into this, using SmartRatings as a guide.
SmartRatings is an AI-powered platform that provides excitement ratings for sporting events, teams, and players. The excitement scale, ranging from 0 to 100, is powered by complex algorithms that rely on six main variables: pace, parity, novelty, momentum, context, and social buzz.
The weight of each variable is dynamic and adapts to the season. The excitement scale translates into the following general sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game), 85-100 (Great Game).
So let’s take a look at the three games ranked as the most exciting on the scale and break down the key matchups that could decide them.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 4:25 a.m. ET)
- Smart Ranking: 67
- Win probability: Kansas City (68.0%)
- Key match: Travis Kelce vs. Cardinals secondary
With Tyreek Hill now a Miami Dolphin, the Chiefs can be considered a less formidable offensive unit. To think so would be a mistake given the man Kansas City has under center, and Patrick Mahomes still has his other favorite target in veteran tight end Travis Kelce, who has shown few signs of slowing down.
Kelce posted a 76.4% burn rate that was second in the NFL among tight ends with at least 30 targets last season. While the 33-year-old star has been more troubled by media coverage lately, he’s unlikely to encounter strong resistance against a Cardinals secondary who ranked 20th in open percentage allowed in 2021.
A matchup between Mahomes and Kyler Murray has the potential to be an exciting shootout, but it’s a shootout that the Cardinals will likely come out on the wrong side of unless they find a way to limit Kelce’s impact.
Green Bay Packers vs. Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, 4:25 a.m. ET)
- Smart Ranking: 76
- Win probability: Minnesota (51.0%)
- Key match: David Bakhtiari vs. Danielle Hunter
Left tackle David Bakhtiari is apparently set to make a comeback for his Packers after a long recovery from a serious knee injury.
His health and ability to produce the All-Pro play that made him one of the best in the game will be severely tested in a tantalizing NFC North matchup in Minnesota.
Hunter may have had his 2021 season cut short by injury, but he still recorded a stunt-adjusted pass-rush rate of 37.1, well above the league average of 22. .2 for top rushers.
Green Bay should win the division by our model, but it’s an underdog by a narrow margin on this trip to Minnesota.
Aaron Rodgers had the second-worst pressure throw percentage (61.5%) among QBs with at least 100 forced attempts last year. And if Bakhtiari can’t keep Hunter out of Green Bay’s backfield, Rodgers’ hopes of a productive first game since the Davante Adams trade could be seriously compromised.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 8:20 a.m. ET)
- Smart Ranking: 84
- Win probability: Dallas (54.0%)
- Key match: CeeDee Lamb vs. Buccaneers cornerbacks
The Cowboys offense suddenly looks a lot shallower after the Amari Cooper trade and Dallas will be without Michael Gallup for Week 1.
That leaves CeeDee Lamb as the main threat in the passing game for a repeat of last year’s season opener, which the Buccaneers won in Tampa.
Lamb’s combined open percentage against man and area coverage was 45.9 percent last season — seventh-best among pass catchers with at least 100 games.
He will face two top starting cornerbacks in this primetime matchup, however. Jamel Dean (21.7%) and Carlton Davis (23.0%) each had combined opening percentages allowed above the league average of 30.9% for their position.
Dallas’ offensive success will likely revolve around Dak Prescott’s connection with Lamb. It could be a long and difficult opening for the Cowboys if they struggle to get it started.
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