On Tuesday, the league made official what Viking Update had speculated last week, that the champion New Orleans Saints would host the Thursday night prime time regular season opener for the 2010 year. An opponent wasn't listed, but the league confirmed that the Saints will play at the Superdome in the season's debut game.
It shouldn't have come as any great shock that the Saints got the game. Since the 2004 season, the defending Super Bowl champs have hosted the NFL Kickoff opener every year. The opponent won't be announced until the first portions of the 2010 schedule – the announcement of the opening weekend games that include a Thursday night, Sunday night and two Monday night games – but we can pretty accurately drop the list of candidates to two. Say what you want about the other potential 2010 home opponents of the Saints, but only two that make any sense are the Vikings and the Steelers.
The other six potential opponents have a difficult argument to make in order to be considered for the premier opening-night event. In a year that is likely to be deluged with talk of strikes, lockouts and other phrases for a work stoppage, the NFL wants to put its best foot forward in this pivotal season in the league's recent history. Do you really think the NFL wants to showcase Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Cleveland or Seattle – teams with four of the top seven picks in the draft? Not likely. In fact, if you're a Saints fan, 2010 looks to have more gravy than a Waltons Family Christmas. Of the Saints' eight home opponents, the Vikings were the only one to make the playoffs and division rivals Carolina and Atlanta don't have the sort of national sway that would get the kind of record-setting audience the NFL is looking for with its inaugural game of the 2010 season. It's either the Vikings or the Steelers.
There may be some strong pull from both FOX and CBS to keep those games. Because the network of the road team gets the broadcast, CBS will only have two opportunities to carry a Saints game on their air. A 4:15 p.m. (ET) start for a matchup of the last two Super Bowl champions would be potentially huge for CBS. Seeing as the only other chance CBS viewers will get for the Saints will be against Cleveland, the network could make a strong push to put the franchise tag on that game, which is why it would be ideal for the Kickoff Game and is currently broadcast as part of NBC's Sunday night package (they lose a game in October to give way to a Sunday night World Series game to make up for it). But, in the NFL, numbers talk considerably louder than words and the numbers favor the Vikings.
The Vikings set an all-time record for ESPN last year on MNF against Green Bay. The rematch with the Packers beat that mark and gave FOX its highest non-Super Bowl ratings in its sports broadcasting history. The NFC Championship Game drew 58 million viewers and a 33.3 rating – the highest since the 49ers-Cowboys championship game in 1995. The Vikings are box office and, in a sport where money is king, the ratings could be enormous.
The biggest problem to getting the early rematch is that recent history of the kickoff game has been a little sketchy. In 2007, the defending champion Colts hosted the Saints. Who dat? The matchup made little sense other than the weak leap of faith that somehow the Manning legacy could be in play – Peyton winning in Indy and Archie taking a decade-long beating in New Orleans. However, two other home games would have been much better candidates. The Patriots had added Randy Moss and were on their way to a 16-0 regular season and would have done boffo business. Even Tampa Bay made more sense, since it would be a matchup between the team Tony Dungy built into a Super Bowl contender and the team he finally won the Lombardi Trophy with.
In 2008, the mantle was passed to the New York Giants. The G-Men didn't have a stellar schedule of non-division home opponents, but the public is always willing to watch the Giants play the Cowboys or the Eagles. Dallas made sense, since the Giants went on the road and knocked the 13-3 ‘boys out of the playoffs as the NFC's No. 1 seed. Philly was always a good national draw. Who was chosen? Washington. Why? A vanilla team that made it to the playoffs with Todd Collins as its quarterback before going out meekly in the first round, the Redskins were almost universally picked to finish last in the NFC East. They did.
Last year, the Steelers got the kickoff game and had plenty of decent storylines to go with – which might explain why they missed the playoffs. They could have played Baltimore, who they beat in the AFC Championship Game. They could have played San Diego, who they knocked out in the divisional round. They could have played the Vikings. They could have played the Packers. Instead, they got the Tennessee Titans. It was hard to quarrel with the selection, since the Titans had the best record in the NFL the previous year (13-3), but a strong case could have been made to go with the Ravens or Chargers.
The league won't make an official announcement for a couple of months, but it would seem the Battle of New Orleans for prime-time consideration is being waged between Minnesota and Pittsburgh. Given last month's NFC title game or the chance to have the last two Super Bowl winners squaring off, it would be hard to knock either matchup for the Kickoff Game. But, don't you get the feeling that the NFL is gambling Brett Favre comes back and plays his first real game in the place his 2009 season ended? That might be enough to get him back…even if he says he isn't about seeking revenge.
"When you've got teams like that and defensive coordinators saying those types of things publicly, it just creates a little turmoil," Shiancoe said. "I feel a little animosity. So it all depends on who is placed upon and how they react to it. But we didn't like that too much, of course, especially being that it was Brett – unnecessary hits and a little bit of extra. You know, we play these guys again (in 2010). It might be a little bit extra out there."