2020 NFL Week 1: Thursday Night Football Opener
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs -9 -115
The Kansas City Chiefs will host the Houston Texans Thursday evening, to usher in the start of the new NFL season. Our experience with other sports in the age of COVID-19 has prepared us to expect differences this year, but we also expect to encounter some familiar truths. We do not think the present environment shrinks the gap in ability between the defending champs and the Texans. In fact, we argue the divide has expanded since these teams last met in January.
Notably, the surreal weirdness of empty stadiums will require some mental adjustment from fans, but perhaps more importantly, this reality functionally negates home field advantage (though the Chiefs plan to host 16,000 fans for their home opener, so home field might be worth more than zero in this setting--probably not much more though). Also, fans should be open to the idea of delays at some point this season, related to potential outbreaks, as the NFL model more closely resembles that of the MLB (where teams travel, and players interact with the outside world) than the NBA--by the way, the NFL has contingencies in place to address potential delays, including postponing the Superbowl to allow time for make-up games.
But aside from the numerous pandemic-imposed considerations that impact how the game is played, coached and even officiated, a notable difference in the composition of these teams is influencing our assessment of the Texans at Chiefs in week 1. Following last year's playoff elimination (at the hands of these Kansas City Chiefs), the Texans traded star wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, for a journeyman running back and second and fourth round (2021) draft picks.
Hopkins was the 17th best wide out in the League last year, per The Football Outsiders rankings, and the Texans offense looked to Hopkins on 28% of snaps last season. The big, sure-handed receiver was key to Houston's 63% red zone success rate (which was good for 9th best in the League).
Brandin Cooks was acquired in the wake of the Hopkins deal. Cooks is no DeAndre Hopkins. The seventh year pass catcher from Oregon State is indeed a solid receiver, catching 58% of his targets last year. Hopkins, on the other hand, completed 69% of his attempts despite a utilization rate more than triple Cooks'. Further, by Football Outsiders DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) stat, Hopkins excess value over a replacement-caliber player was about three times Cooks' last year (DYAR assesses receivers' performance on completions, adjusted for situation and opponent).
Part of the performance disparity between Cooks and Hopkins might be explained by physical attributes. Cooks gives up three inches and roughly 30 pounds to Hopkins, so his natural edge versus opposing cornerbacks is generally smaller...Hopkins might also be incredibly gifted.
Putting aside the Hopkins trade, which many observers deem dubious, and the resultant decline in Houston's well of talent, we also note that Bill O'Brien is not an elite coach by objective measures. Head Coach Ranking evaluates NFL brass along five metrics believed to influence outcomes: play calling, personnel utilization, game planning, in-game adjustments and clock management. Over the last three seasons, the span of available data, O'Brien's average ranking suggests he is about an average coach.
Andy Reid will hold the clipboard on the other side of the field Thursday. Reid's three year average ranking implies he is a top decision-maker. Further, the Chiefs' coach will have at his disposal Thursday his intact core of skilled position players to complement studly QB, Patrick Mahomes, as well as the vast majority of last year's top-ten pass rushing squad (10 of 11 of Kansas City's starting defensive players are returned).
The Texans and Chiefs met in the Divisional round of the last playoffs. The Chiefs won by 20 as 10 point favorites (though Hopkins would be compromised by torn rib cartilage and then a dislocated finger in that game). We expect Houston's current offense should be similarly hard pressed to keep up Thursday.
Consistent with the fundamental story of the Chiefs widened talent advantage over the Texans, our power rankings and computer simulation frameworks likewise unanimously endorse the home cover.
Moreover, per data from Pro Football Reference, we remind our readers that, in the modern configuration of the NFL, it has generally proven quite profitable to back teams laying meaningful chalk on Thursday nights.
Bottom line: The Texans didn't have much fun when these teams last met. We estimate the loss of Hopkins makes the sledding that much tougher for Houston come Thursday. Accordingly, our power rankings and computer simulation work are all yelling for the Chiefs cover in the initial contest of the NFL's corona-football season. These signals also fit with the broader tendency for favorites to cover under the bright Thursday night lights. We are laying the 9 and siding with the better team to cover.