The NFL’s RedZone channel starts every broadcast with the same sentence: “Seven hours of commercial-free football starts now.” It sounds like a dream—an entire day of football with no ads whatsoever. The channel saves viewers roughly 35 hours of commercials over the course of an entire season, and its purpose is to cut down all the boring parts of the game in favor of the most exciting moments: touchdowns, turnovers, and big plays.
But I’ve always been ambivalent about RedZone. NFL games are more than just a string of highlights—they’re a long battle for territory and positioning. When you’re just watching the highlights, you miss that art of teams feeling out their opponent over time, finding the right cracks, and saving them for a late fourth-quarter push. Through 60 on-field minutes, a narrative forms, but on RedZone, that narrative gets stripped away. It can be like CliffsNotes football.
So, in an effort to watch fewer highlights and more full NFL games this season, I tried to come up with a system that can predict which games will be good and which will be bad. There’s a lot of mediocre football out there, and with multiple games starting at the same time every Sunday, it’s important to prioritize which games will be worth watching. With all that in mind, here is The Ringer’s NFL Watchability Rankings and Sunday viewing guide.
These watchability rankings—which are inspired by Zach Kram’s work on the other football watchability rankings—focuses on six statistics (all on a per-game basis) that determine how exciting a team is to watch. Four of those are offensive stats (because offense is most important for watchability purposes), and two are defensive:
- Touchdowns. This one is self-explanatory. The formula factors in all touchdowns, so this isn’t an offense-only stat, but since most TDs come on that side of the ball, this is essentially measuring a team’s effectiveness at putting the ball in the end zone.
- Big plays. These are defined as any play that goes for 20-plus yards, which is a good estimation of the explosiveness of an offense.
- Punts. Punting is boring, so teams that punt more often are docked points.
- Turnovers. While a turnover is often an exciting play, offenses that cough the ball up constantly are not fun to watch. Looking at you, DeShone Kizer.
- Sacks. Taking down the quarterback is the second-most exciting thing that can happen on defense, just after …
- Takeaways. Turnovers on offense are ugly, but defenses that force interceptions and fumbles are the most fun to watch.
Similar to The Ringer’s soccer Watchability Rankings, I calculated a z-score for each of these six factors to determine whether teams were better or worse than average in each category, and by how much. Here’s how each team graded out for the 2017 season:
2017 NFL Watchability Scores
|Rank||Team||TDs Score||Big Plays Score||Punts Score||TOs Score||Sacks Score||Takeaways Score||TOTAL SCORE|
|Rank||Team||TDs Score||Big Plays Score||Punts Score||TOs Score||Sacks Score||Takeaways Score||TOTAL SCORE|
|1||New Orleans Saints||1.42||2.52||1.14||0.62||0.57||0.52||6.80|
|2||Los Angeles Rams||1.42||0.81||0.76||0.14||1.31||1.06||5.49|
|3||New England Patriots||1.17||1.15||1.30||1.58||0.57||-0.73||5.05|
|5||Los Angeles Chargers||0.45||0.89||0.06||1.10||0.69||0.88||4.08|
|7||Kansas City Chiefs||0.32||0.81||0.76||1.74||-0.78||0.70||3.56|
|10||Green Bay Packers||1.70||0.38||1.04||-0.34||-0.04||-0.01||2.73|
|11||San Francisco 49ers||-0.11||0.93||2.56||0.43||-0.90||-0.37||2.54|
|22||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||-0.16||-0.64||0.68||-0.82||-1.88||0.70||-2.12|
|27||New York Jets||-0.89||0.04||-1.48||-0.34||-1.15||-0.37||-4.18|
|31||New York Giants||-1.37||-1.67||-1.71||-0.02||-1.27||-0.55||-6.59|
A quick technical note about these rankings: Since we’re using them to look forward to 2018, I decided that for the Packers, 49ers, and Texans, I’d only count the offensive numbers for games in which Aaron Rodgers, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Deshaun Watson played, respectively. It’s not 100 percent mathematically sound, but without that modification, these teams were near the bottom of the league in watchability, and when those QBs are on the field, we know that’s not the case.
Looking at this list, there are a few important takeaways. First, like the soccer watchability scores, there is an unsurprising correlation between team success and team watchability. Seven of the top eight teams made the playoffs last year, and both Super Bowl teams finished in the top four. Of course, there are some exceptions—Tennessee and Buffalo made the playoffs last season (both by the skin of their teeth), but they ranked 20th and 21st in watchability. Meanwhile the Chargers were the fifth-most watchable team in this metric but fell just short of the postseason. Classic Chargers.
The goal of these watchability scores is to explain why certain teams make for appointment viewing, and why some aren’t worth tuning into at all. Take the Saints, for example—they were by far the most watchable team of 2017, and that’s partially because they were way ahead of the rest of the league in number of big plays. New Orleans had 89 plays of more than 20 yards last year, which was 16 more than the second-highest team (the Patriots). If you were watching a Saints game last year, you were probably having a good time.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, were a ho-hum team on offense, but had an elite defense in both effectiveness and watchability. The Jags were second in the league in sacks and takeaways, and they had by far the NFL’s most watchable defense. If you’re going to Sunday channel-surf, the Jags are a good team to tune into when they’re on defense—but much of the havoc they cause is missed on RedZone.
Like any good metric, this one mostly tells us things we already know. The Saints, Rams, Pats, and Eagles were worth watching last year; the Browns, Giants, Dolphins, and Colts were easy to skip. But these numbers are most useful when they’re applied to games. By looking at the watchability score of each team and adding a small modifier to include the Vegas line (to boost games that are expected to be close), we can create a list to help you organize your Sunday viewing. Here’s how that looks for every game this week, including the Thursday Night Football opener, which has already been played:
NFL Watchability Game Scores, Week 1
|Rank||Away||Team Score||Home||Team Score||Day||Time (ET)||Home Line||Game Score|
|Rank||Away||Team Score||Home||Team Score||Day||Time (ET)||Home Line||Game Score|
|1||Atlanta Falcons||1.58||Philadelphia Eagles||4.37||Thu||8:20 PM||0||9.06|
|2||Kansas City Chiefs||3.56||Los Angeles Chargers||4.08||Sun||4:05 PM||-3.5||8.52|
|3||San Francisco 49ers||2.54||Minnesota Vikings||1.89||Sun||1:00 PM||-6.5||3.42|
|4||Houston Texans||-0.80||New England Patriots||5.05||Sun||1:00 PM||-6.5||3.23|
|5||Los Angeles Rams||5.49||Oakland Raiders||-3.37||Mon||10:20 PM||4||2.70|
|6||Dallas Cowboys||-0.37||Carolina Panthers||1.33||Sun||4:25 PM||-3||2.17|
|7||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||-2.12||New Orleans Saints||6.80||Sun||1:00 PM||-9.5||1.76|
|8||Washington Redskins||-0.45||Arizona Cardinals||-2.96||Sun||4:25 PM||-1||-0.94|
|9||Seattle Seahawks||1.52||Denver Broncos||-4.18||Sun||4:25 PM||-3||-1.45|
|10||Jacksonville Jaguars||3.55||New York Giants||-6.59||Sun||1:00 PM||3||-1.83|
|11||New York Jets||-4.18||Detroit Lions||3.23||Mon||7:10 PM||-6.5||-1.97|
|12||Buffalo Bills||-1.35||Baltimore Ravens||0.97||Sun||1:00 PM||-7.5||-2.03|
|13||Chicago Bears||-3.16||Green Bay Packers||2.73||Sun||8:20 PM||-7.5||-2.08|
|14||Pittsburgh Steelers||3.98||Cleveland Browns||-7.09||Sun||1:00 PM||4||-2.53|
|15||Tennessee Titans||-1.33||Miami Dolphins||-5.67||Sun||1:00 PM||1.5||-4.84|
|16||Cincinnati Bengals||-4.41||Indianapolis Colts||-4.63||Sun||1:00 PM||-3||-7.84|
With these scores in mind, here’s a viewing guide for NFL Week 1 (well, for Sunday’s early and afternoon games—you don’t need a guide for prime-time), broken up by slate and organized from most-watchable game to the least:
The Early Slate
49ers at Vikings (Game Score: Plus-3.42)
This game has no shortage of story lines. Kirk Cousins is trying to take a stacked Vikings roster over the top, and Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan are aiming to bring the 49ers back to relevancy.
We know the Vikings will be good—outside of a patchwork offensive line, Minnesota may have the best top-to-bottom roster in football, and this offseason the team upgraded at the most important position. Should the Vikings make it back to the NFC championship game this year, it’s unlikely they’ll get embarrassed again.
I’m more interested in how Jimmy G will start the season in San Francisco. Garoppolo won five games with the Niners last year (have you heard he’s 7-0 as an NFL starter?), and while he immediately elevated the squad, he played against only one tough defense during that stretch. That said, that defense was the Jaguars, who were no. 1 in defensive DVOA last season, and he picked them apart to the tune of 242 yards, two touchdowns, one INT, and a 102.4 passer rating in a 44-33 win. (Seriously, the Patriots may have really messed up in ditching him for a second-round pick. This could prove to be worse than the time the Falcons traded Brett Favre.)
But we still don’t really know if Garoppolo is for real. This week, he’ll get another chance to prove himself against one of the league’s best defenses. In the secondary, the Vikings added George Iloka to an already stacked group at safety that includes Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo; plus, cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes give the team two of the league’s best defenders on the outside. And with the team’s solid group of linebackers and defensive linemen, this is one of the most complete groups in the league. If Garoppolo can do to them what he did to the Jags, we’ll know right away that his 2017 season was no fluke.
Texans at Patriots (Plus-3.23)
Deshaun Watson’s second season is beginning in the best way imaginable. Watson nearly outdueled Tom Brady in Week 3 last year and sent a message to the league: This kid out of Clemson is something special. Watson threw for 301 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions before Houston succumbed to a vintage-Brady game-winning drive. But Watson’s performance was so much more than just a statline. Humanity put a man on the moon, but we’ll still never really understand the physics behind this throw:
With Watson and stars like J.J. Watt (if he’s healthy), DeAndre Hopkins, and Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans could contend in an AFC South that feels as open as any division in football. Still, their tire-fire offensive line and unproven secondary could sink their chances. They’re the NFL’s most high-variance team.
That makes this matchup with New England particularly exciting. Watson has a chance to repeat his 2017 breakout performance, and we’ll find out immediately whether Houston’s defense can hold its own against Brady. Last year, the Texans-Pats matchup proved Watson was for real. This year, it could do the same for the entire Houston team.
Buccaneers at Saints (Plus-1.76)
Though New Orleans was the most watchable team in the league in 2017, that doesn’t mean every game they play will be exciting. The Bucs are a below-average team in watchability, and that’s before accounting for the fact that Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the team’s starting quarterback for the first three games of the season. The Saints are also favored by 9.5 points, so this game isn’t expected to be close. Players like Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Cameron Jordan, and Marshon Lattimore are always worth tuning in for, but unless things go sideways, this game should be a relatively straightforward win for the Saints.
Jaguars at Giants (Minus-1.83)
The Giants were an abysmal team to watch last year, but they were without Odell Beckham Jr. for much of the season. Beckham’s return to the lineup is particularly compelling for this matchup since he’ll be going up against Jalen Ramsey and the NFL’s best pass defense. Ramsey is the league’s most notorious trash talker, and Beckham isn’t exactly afraid to fire back. But, if their on-field comments are as tame as the ones they‘ve given to the media in the last few weeks, there may not be a war of words on Sunday.
“I’ll say Odell’s good,” Ramsey told GQ in August.
Beckham responded on Thursday, saying, “[Ramsey] is, if not the best, one of the best corners in the league. There is no way around it.”
Even if this game is light on extracurricular fireworks, it’ll still be one of the best one-on-one matchups we’ll see all season. And given that NFC and AFC squads only play each other once every four years, this may be the last Ramsey-Beckham duel for a while.
Bills at Ravens (Minus-2.03)
Buffalo was a playoff team last year, and while they were well below-average in watchability, they weren’t in the NFL’s basement. On the other side of that coin, watching Joe Flacco complete checkdown passes on third-and-long last season was like watching an NBA team settle for midrange jumpers every possession. But Baltimore’s defense was better than you remember, and they led the NFL in takeaways.
Wait ... is that Nathan Peterman’s music?
The same guy who threw five interceptions in a single half last year is getting the start against the defense that led the NFL in takeaways. This may be a disaster, but it’s worth tuning in just to see if Peterman can get to six this time.
Steelers at Browns (Minus-2.53)
The Steelers will return most of their roster from last season (with one extremely notable omission), while the Browns have a brand-new look, which includes quarterback Tyrod Taylor, running backs Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb, and receivers Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway on offense. Plus, wideout Josh Gordon is returning after missing the preseason and playing in just a handful of contests last year. The skill-position players in Cleveland are plenty exciting.
The team’s defense could make a jump, too. Myles Garrett has a chance to be one of the best defenders in the league in his second year, Damarious Randall is a solid addition in the secondary, Jabrill Peppers should play more in his natural position this season, and Denzel Ward is a promising rookie. The unit may not be great, but it’ll at least be decent.
All of this leads to the inevitable question: When will Cleveland finally record its first win since Christmas Eve 2016? It’s not a complete reach to think that could happen this week. The Steelers are still one of the best teams in the league, but they’re missing Le’Veon Bell and are only favored by four points in this matchup. The Browns’ shot at a Week 1 upset may be better than many fans think.
Titans at Dolphins (Minus-4.84)
The Dolphins were unwatchable last year, and now that they’ve offloaded Jarvis Landry, Jay Ajayi, and Ndamukong Suh, they may be even worse to view in 2018. But Tennessee, which ranked 20th in watchability last season, could see a turnaround if things break right for quarterback Marcus Mariota and new head coach Mike Vrabel.
Mariota’s potential is through the roof. New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur studied under both Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, and it’s easy to see how a play-action-heavy system like those in L.A. or Atlanta could unleash Mariota and playmakers like Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis, Delanie Walker, and Corey Davis. We’ve been waiting so long for Mariota to live up to the hype of a Heisman winner and no. 2 pick, and this could finally be his year.
Bengals at Colts (Minus-7.84)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Indy-Cincy is the least watchable game of the entire week. These teams were not only bad last season, they were also boring. This year, while the Bengals could be a bounce-back candidate (Danny Kelly made the case for them here), the Colts are the more interesting team by a mile. That’s due to the return of one player: Andrew Luck.
Luck’s preseason has been a bit of a mixed bag. Though he’s finally throwing footballs again, he hasn’t been throwing them very far:
Andrew Luck average depth of target:— Pat Thorman (@Pat_Thorman) August 31, 2018
2016: 8.9 yards
2018 Preseason: 5.7 yards
The preseason is a small sample size, so that number could jump up in a hurry, especially with Frank Reich and his QB-friendly scheme fully established now in Indy. This will be Luck’s first real game action in 20 months—and that makes this matchup much more watchable than the rating system indicates.
The Afternoon Slate
Chiefs at Chargers (Plus-8.52)
This is the second-most watchable game of the week after Falcons-Eagles. The Chargers were the fifth-most watchable team in the NFL in 2017, the Chiefs were seventh, and with L.A. just a 3.5-point favorite, this game is expected to be close. Both of these teams should be exciting not just in this game, but throughout the entire season. Why? Let’s start with the Chiefs:
Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill for a 69-yard touchdown. pic.twitter.com/EjFr9r7qaq— Field Yates (@FieldYates) August 18, 2018
It is Patrick freaking Mahomes season, my friends. The pass in that video travels 69 yards—longer than any completion in the NFL last year—and Mahomes says he underthrew it. Tyreek Hill is one of the fastest players in the league, and Mahomes has the type of arm strength to hit him mid-stride. With Kareem Hunt, Sammy Watkins, and Travis Kelce, Kansas City may have the most interesting offense in the entire NFL, and it’s being powered by one of the league’s biggest arms. Is there any way to get Mahomes to battle Josh Allen in a throw-off?
But this week won’t be a cakewalk for the Chiefs’ offense because the Chargers’ defense is loaded. Through just 28 career games, Joey Bosa has 23 sacks, good for eighth-most for a player in their first 28 contests. Bosa and Melvin Ingram form the best edge-rushing duo in the entire league, plus the team has Casey Hayward, one of the best cover corners in football, in the secondary. The Chargers also added safety Derwin James in the first round of the draft, and he’s a wrecking ball of a player and one of the most athletic guys selected this year, full stop. This defense is going to get sacks and turnovers, and cause all kinds of chaos.
L.A.’s offense, too, is full of stars. The team has Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon, Antonio Gates, and—of course— Philip Rivers, who is probably the most underrated passer of his era. If second-year pro Mike Williams can make a jump this year, this offense could really make some noise. And we know he can jump:
The Chiefs and Chargers could top the NFL in watchability this year—and we get them battling in Week 1. This is also a revenge matchup, as the Chargers lost to the Chiefs in Week 15 to keep the former out of the playoffs. I truly can’t understand how this game escaped prime-time. It might even be enticing enough to get some Chargers fans to show up.
Cowboys at Panthers (Plus-2.17)
Please let this be Christian McCaffrey’s year. The former Stanford running back averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and tallied only 435 yards on the ground last season, though with his receiving production he topped 1,000 scrimmage from yards. He’s the most exciting player on the Panthers, and if he becomes the game-breaking, near-positionless playmaker Carolina believes he can be, this could be one of the most entertaining offenses in football. Last year, the Panthers were below average in big plays. McCaffrey could help with that:
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are trying to get their offense back to its 2016 heights, despite an offensive line that isn’t at full health and a receiving corps that’s among the thinnest in the league. They’ll need Ezekiel Elliott to put up big numbers, and Dak Prescott to play like he did in his rookie campaign.
Both of these teams appear to be on the NFC bubble, and in the quest for a postseason berth in this conference, getting off to a 1-0 start could be huge.
Redskins at Cardinals (Minus-0.94)
According to Vegas, this should be one of the closest games of the weekend. Arizona is just a one-point favorite. But both of these teams were slightly below-average in watchability last season, so this isn’t exactly a marquee matchup.
That said, there is one particularly salient story line, and that’s the arrival of Alex Smith in Washington. If Kirk Cousins—who Washington let walk in free agency—takes off in Minnesota and Smith underperforms, it could be the mistake of the century. Or, as that’s called in D.C., a typical offseason.
Seahawks at Broncos (Minus-1.45)
Four and a half years ago, these two squads met in the Super Bowl. Now, they’re playing in the least-watchable Sunday afternoon game of Week 1. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Then again, that Super Bowl wasn’t so watchable itself, so maybe this is an appropriate slot.
But there are a few factors that can save the watchability of this matchup: Case Keenum is making his debut in Denver, Russell Wilson is trying to salvage the Seahawks’ offense, Earl Thomas may return after a lengthy holdout, and the most hyped non-Saquon Barkley rookie running back, Royce Freeman, will get his first chance to shine. I’ll also have my eye on one matchup in particular: Von Miller and Bradley Chubb vs. Seattle’s offensive line. The Seahawks did little to fix their consistently awful line this offseason, while the Broncos went out and loaded up their already solid pass rush. This could become a clinic in sacks, stuffs, and broken plays—which means Wilson may need to make some magic happen.