Catch the NFL’s big return

  • Reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens will kick off their season today at 7 a.m. against the Cleveland Browns. (AP Photo/Gail Burton, File)

Baseball came back, then basketball and hockey. But in the American sports world, professional football is a behemoth, and many fans will feel that sports has only truly returned now that the NFL is back.

The league benefited from the calendar. The Super Bowl was held in early February, before the pandemic set in, and the new season wasn’t due to begin until this month. That gave the NFL time to prepare and avoid the hiatuses forced upon other sports.

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All of the preseason games, which tend to be unpopular anyway, were scrapped, but the regular-season opener between the Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Houston Texans was held as promised on Thursday, with the Chiefs winning, 34-20. (The rest of the teams kick off on Sunday and Monday.)

Thursday night had something of the big-game atmosphere that has been missing from other sports, as fans were allowed to fill about 16,000 seats of the 76,000-seat Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. The NFL, like baseball, is holding games at home stadiums — and not playing in a bubble — and left the decision on whether to admit spectators to teams and local authorities.

But the Chiefs-Texans game was an exception. Most NFL teams have announced that no spectators will be allowed, at least for the first few games. The Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to be the only other team to admit fans during Week 1 — about 17,000 for Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts (1 p.m. Eastern, CBS; games can also be streamed through the NFL app).

Along with the Chiefs, the Baltimore Ravens are co-favored to win this season’s Super Bowl, thanks to the team’s record-setting quarterback, Lamar Jackson. The Ravens’ season gets underway Sunday, when they meet the Cleveland Browns (1 p.m., CBS).

Elsewhere, the Washington franchise is reeling. It has finally dropped its moniker, long deemed racist by Native American activists and many others, but has yet to offer a replacement. (The Chiefs are keeping their nickname but have barred fans from wearing war paint, headdresses and other such regalia to the games.) For now, the Washington football team will be called, well, the Washington Football Team. The franchise is also dealing with accusations of a toxic office culture, including alleged widespread sexual harassment. The team starts its season against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday (1 p.m., Fox).

Another history-making game kicks off at the same time: The Las Vegas Raiders, newly relocated from Oakland, will play their first-ever game at the Carolina Panthers (1 p.m., CBS).

Maybe high-quality football isn’t your thing. Good news, then: The Cincinnati Bengals (2-14 last season) face off against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (4:05 p.m., CBS). Despite playing at home, and despite having the No. 1 draft pick, the quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bengals are underdogs. They could have a long season.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the New Orleans Saints (4:25 p.m., Fox) is yet another matchup to watch Sunday because Tom Brady, the longtime quarterback for the New England Patriots, will turn out in a new uniform this season for the Bucs. Tampa Bay will also have one of Brady’s favorite pass catchers, the colorful Rob Gronkowski, who has come out of retirement to reunite with Brady.

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The first week wraps up with a Monday night doubleheader: Pittsburgh Steelers-New York Giants and Tennessee Titans-Denver Broncos (7:10 p.m. and 10:20 p.m., ESPN).

And if you prefer the other “football,” the English Premier League also started this weekend. Catch West Brom-Leicester (Sunday, 9 a.m., NBCSN and Telemundo) and Tottenham-Everton (11:30 a.m., Telemundo).

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