by Julian Spivey
Detroit Lions @ Kansas City Chiefs (Week 1) – Thursday, Sept. 7 on NBC at 7:20 p.m. (CST)
The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs have the honor of kicking off the 2023 NFL season at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City hosting the Detroit Lions. Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes looks to have another stellar season in control of the offense, though the team’s defensive leader Chris Jones is holding out for a better contract and there’s no telling when he’ll be available. The Lions, who were 9-8 last year, are looking to make their first playoff appearance since the 2016 season. Expect to see the Chiefs a bunch on this list.
Buffalo Bills @ New York Jets (Week 1) – Monday, Sept. 11 on ESPN at 7:15 p.m. (CST)
The biggest player acquisition of the offseason was the Green Bay Packers trading three-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets after years of whining to get out of Green Bay. Rodgers had the weakest year of his career last season but was MVP of the league the season prior to that. The Jets have their first star-caliber QB in ages and hope to ride him to their first playoff appearance since the 2010 season. The team hasn’t had a winning season since 2015. Rodgers and the Jets will have a big task facing them in his team debut taking on the Buffalo Bills, one of the perennial favorites in the AFC over the last few years led by quarterback Josh Allen. The matchup kicks off Monday Night Football’s season.
Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles (Week 2) – Thursday, Sept. 14 on Amazon Prime Video at 7:15 p.m. (CST)
Football fans how have you liked the NFL on streaming-only options? Might want to get used to it and it’ll probably become more commonplace not only for the NFL but sports in general. Amazon Prime Video’s Thursday Night Football debut for the season features a doozy of a matchup they may wind up being the NFC Championship preview with the Minnesota Vikings going into Philadelphia to face the Eagles, the league’s best team by record last season. Remember when TNF used to get the absolute worst matchups? Well, this ain’t it. Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson vs. Jalen Hurts and DeVonta Smith is going to be a fun watch.
Kansas City Chiefs @ New York Jets (Week 4) – Sunday, Oct. 1 on NBC at 7:20 p.m. (CST)
This matchup is here because it features the MVPs of four of the last five seasons with Patrick Mahomes (2018 and 2022) and Aaron Rodgers (2020 and 2021). Mahomes and Rodgers might be the two most recognizable faces in the league with the retirement of Tom Brady during the offseason and you better believe this Chiefs vs. Jets matchup is going to bring in big Nielsen ratings. Also, get used to seeing the Jets on national broadcasts all of a sudden with the addition of Rodgers.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Minnesota Vikings (Week 5) – Sunday, Oct. 8 on CBS at 3:25 p.m. (CST)
It isn’t all that often you get a matchup during the regular season of teams that go on to meet up in the Super Bowl, but many believe Chiefs/Vikings is a likely potential Super Bowl LVIII matchup next February. Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce against Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson will be a fun watch and sorry Fox your Bengals vs. Cardinals and Eagles vs. Rams matchups that afternoon won’t be getting too many eyes scheduled against this one.
Buffalo Bills @ Cincinnati Bengals (Week 9) – Sunday, Nov. 5 on NBC at 7:20 p.m. (CST)
Most notably this will be the first matchup between the Bills and Bengals since the late season Monday Night Football matchup last season that saw the horrific injury to Bills safety Damar Hamlin on the field when he collapsed and stopped breathing after a hit and had to be revived by Bills medical personnel in the scariest on-field moment the NFL has seen in many years. Thankfully, Hamlin recovered and made the Bills roster this season and hopefully, he will be eligible to play in week nine in what will surely be an emotional matchup between these two teams. Not only will it be emotional, but it could be a potential AFC Championship matchup if these teams can find their way past the Kansas City Chiefs.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Kansas City Chiefs (Week 11) – Monday, Nov. 20 on ESPN at 7:15 p.m. (CST)
It’s also not that often you get a Super Bowl rematch the next season, but that’s what will happen in Week 11 when the Philadelphia Eagles travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs, who beat them 38-35 in Super Bowl LVII with a fourth-quarter comeback, on Monday Night Football. The Chiefs are undoubtedly the best team in the league in my opinion, but have a tough schedule this season, which includes the Eagles, Vikings, Bills, Bengals, Chargers and potentially better than we’ve been accustomed to Jets and Lions teams.
Washington Commanders @ Dallas Cowboys (Week 12) – Thursday, Nov. 23 on CBS at 3:30 p.m. (CST)
OK, so in all honesty, this isn’t really one of the 10 best matchups during the NFL season as far as competition goes – but Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving football is my favorite NFL tradition that isn’t the Super Bowl. The Cowboys are still America’s Team when it comes to television ratings too so I had to get them involved in this list somehow. The Cowboys should be a contender in the NFC this season, but I don’t expect a whole lot from the Commanders squad.
Christmas Games: Las Vegas Raiders @ Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants @ Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens @ San Francisco 49ers (Week 16) – Monday, December 25 – All Day on CBS, Fox and ABC
So, I’m honestly a bit perturbed by this because it’s the NFL – already the top dog in the sports world – encroaching on the NBA’s territory. Encroachment as you know is supposed to be a penalty. Christmas Day has long been the NBA’s biggest regular season day of the season and now the NFL is coming in and will no doubt top the NBA in television ratings. I’ll be honest with you again – I’ll likely be tuning into the NBA instead. But there’s no doubt this will be a big day for NFL and featuring the reigning AFC and NFC champs in the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles is big. This also allows me to get some other teams that won’t be featured on this list into the mix with the Raiders, Giants, Ravens and 49ers.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs (Week 17) – Sunday, Dec. 31 on CBS at 3:25 p.m. (CST)
Are you tired of the Kansas City Chiefs on this list yet? They are such a great football team and have such a star-studded schedule this season that it’s hard to trim some of their matchups off this list, but we accept that appearing on more than half of the matchups on this list is a lot. The Week 17 matchup between the Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals is one of the last four AFC Champions with the Chiefs winning three of those and the Bengals winning over the Chiefs in the 2021 season. In fact, Chiefs/Bengals has been the matchup in the last two consecutive AFC Championship games and there’s little reason to believe it won’t happen again this year.
Ranking NASCAR Playoff Field from Least Likely (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) to Most Likely (Denny Hamlin?) to Win the Championship
by Julian Spivey
16. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Every now and then a driver who we know doesn’t have much chance of winning the championship makes it into the playoffs by winning a race, usually at a superspeedway drafting track or via some abnormal strategy in a weather-shortened race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for JTG-Daugherty Racing is that driver this season. Stenhouse was the first driver locked into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs by virtue of winning the season-opening Daytona 500 in February, which while being an underdog team wasn’t all that surprising as Stenhouse’s previous two career Cup wins also came at superspeedways (Talladega and Daytona) in 2017. Stenhouse has only had one other top-5 finish since winning the Great American Race and has only led 25 laps all year and you simply must win races to win the title under the current NASCAR playoff system.
15. Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell’s dominance at the Indianapolis Road Course a few weeks ago led to his second career Cup Series win and a spot in the playoffs. McDowell is having the best season of his career but his team Front Row Motorsports just doesn’t have what it takes to really give the championship a run against the big teams. Like Stenhouse, McDowell only has one other top-5 finish all season besides his win. If he can point his way into the round of 12, he’ll have a good shot at making the round of 8 thanks to the Charlotte Roval and Talladega Superspeedway – with two of his specialties being road racing and drafting races.
14. Darrell Wallace Jr.
As a fan of the sport, I’m thrilled to see Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. make his first playoff appearance of his NASCAR Cup Series career but as a realist, I can see that he doesn’t win enough to truly have a championship shot, and as mentioned above you have to win to be successful in this format. Nobody has fewer career wins in this playoff field than Bubba’s two. Now, in the pro column for him is one of the tracks in the first round of the playoffs is Kansas Speedway, where he dominated last fall for his second career victory. If he can do that again it’s straight to the round of 12 for him.
13. Tyler Reddick
I hate to do this to the 23XI organization, which for the first time in its three-year history has a driver in the playoff field (Kurt Busch qualified last season but was forced to give his spot up due to injury) and the organization has both of its drivers in the playoffs in Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick, but I have both Wallace and Reddick failing to make it out of the first round. Reddick does have a win this year at the Circuit of Americas road course in Austin, Texas early in the season but I just haven’t seen enough from him and his no. 45 Toyota team this summer to think he’s a big threat at the title.
12. Kevin Harvick
It’s Kevin Harvick’s final season and he’s running out of races to win before he calls it quits in November. The whole Stewart-Hass Racing organization has been down this year and Harvick was the only one of the four drivers on the team to make the playoffs due to his consistency. His average finish has been 13.8 and his career did not finish (DNF) percentage may be the best in the sport’s history who’s competed in as many races as he has. Harvick has six top-5s and 12 top-10s this season but just hasn’t been leading many laps (122 total).
11. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney finally got off the schneid with a win this season at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600 in May after going winless in 2022. But the no. 12 Penske Racing driver still doesn’t seem to have the swagger he did in the 2021 season when he won three races and had 20 top-10s. Blaney has four top-5s and 12 top-10s this season with an average finish of 15.8 (his worst since 2017). The whole Penske organization seems down this season.
10. Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski has looked worlds better in his second season driving for his own organization of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing than he did in his first year with the organization in 2022 but he still hasn’t found Victory Lane driving for the team he co-owns. He’s had a solid 2023 otherwise with six top-5s (he had only one last season) and 11 top-10s and an average finish of 13.8. His teammate Chris Buescher has won three of the last five races coming into the playoffs – but like I’ve already said you have to win in this format and I’ll have to see Keselowski do it in the no. 6 Ford to believe it.
9. Ross Chastain
Ross Chastain just doesn’t seem to be quite the driver he was in 2022 and it seems like it is because he’s toned down his aggression on the track after numerous run-ins with fellow drivers on the track that gave his reputation a bit of a black eye. He did win at Nashville Superspeedway this summer but overall, he’s not running up front near as much as he did last season when he made it all the way to the Championship Four. His average finish this season is two positions worse than last season. Maybe Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks needs to tell Chastain to go back to his aggressive ways and forget about the competition.
8. Chris Buescher
I feel bad about having Chris Buescher this low on the list after the last month-plus he’s had winning three of the last five races of the series regular season. He’s the hottest driver in the Cup Series headed into the playoffs bar none, but I can’t get over the feeling that he needs a bit more playoff experience to really be successful in the format. At this time last season, Buescher only had one career Cup win and that came in a strategy call to stay out in a race that ended under foggy conditions at Pocono Raceway. He’s been a great story lately for the sport so maybe he’ll show us the high-stress conditions of playoff racing won’t hinder him any.
7. Joey Logano
The reigning NASCAR champion hasn’t had a season you would think would be befitting of the reigning champion with only one win, which came very early in the season at the drafting super speedway of Atlanta Motor Speedway. Logano has eight top-5s, 13 top-10s and has led 260 laps this season but overall, his performance, along with that of the entire Penske Racing organization, has just kind of felt ho-hum. I’d never count him out though. I don’t think he was ever the title favorite last season until he was hoisting the trophy at Phoenix.
6. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch has three wins this year in his first season with Richard Childress Racing after having the best years of his career, which included two championships, with Joe Gibbs Racing. The three wins are likely more than anybody had predicted for Busch in his first year with RCR but for some reason, some of the luster has already seemed to have worn off for him and his new team this season with those three wins coming in the first 15 races of the year and him having three finishes of 36th or worse in the last six races. The team is going to need to find that gear it had in the first part of the season to have a successful playoff.
5. Christopher Bell
Christopher Bell has about the most fairytale playoffs a driver could have without actually winning a championship in 2022 needing to win in the cutoff race of a playoff round on multiple occasions to survive to the next round and doing so. His clutch gene must be massive. He feels like he’s kind of just been hanging around this year with one win, six top-5s and 13 top-10s, but it also kind of felt that way last season before he turned it on in the playoffs.
4. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson feels like he’s having a down season simply because he’s only found Victory Lane twice thus far and memories of his extremely dominant championship year in 2021 where he won 10 races are still fresh. But Larson has been one of the most consistent drivers all season long and even has more top-5 finishes with 10 than any driver in the sport this season. The only thing really keeping him behind this year is he already has six did not finish (DNF) results. If he can finish races he’ll be a title threat for sure.
3. William Byron
William Byron is no doubt having a career year and has somewhat surprisingly been the top driver at Hendrick Motorsports this season. His five wins, which lead the sport, through the first 26 races of the season are more than the rest of his five-year career coming into 2023 combined. He has nine top-5s and 13 top-10s on the season and enters the playoffs tied with Martin Truex Jr. in the lead position. What he doesn’t have – and this is the factor that keeps me from putting him any higher than I have – is the experience in the late stages of the NASCAR playoffs. When it comes to competing in the postseason against six former champions and the greatest driver in the sport’s history to never win a title it’s probably going to get a bit harder on Byron and the no. 24 team over the next 10 weeks.
2. Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. is having his typical sneaky good season after a shocking playoff absence in 2022. His three wins during the regular season are second only to William Byron’s five. His nine top-5s are second only to Kyle Larson’s 10 and his 15 top-10s lead the sport. His clinching of the regular season points title allowed him to equal Byron’s point total going into the playoffs, where they each begin the fight toward the championship race with 2036 points. Truex has been to the Championship race five of the eight times since the creation of the current playoff format, with one title (2017) and three runner-up positions. When it comes to experience there is nobody more successful in this format than Martin Truex Jr.
1. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin didn’t have the best regular season of all of the playoff drivers. William Byron, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. all had more wins in the season’s first 26 races. Truex, Busch, Christopher Bell, Byron and Joey Logano all had more top-5 finishes in the regular season. Truex, Byron, Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain have all led more laps. But he’s always consistent and finds himself in a good position to start the playoffs in third place just 11 points behind the two leaders Byron and Truex. I’ve got a hunch that this might be the year Hamlin finally wins the title – and he’s certainly running out of chances. Hamlin has reached the point where he’s the greatest driver in the history of NASCAR to never win a championship and I bet he tries like hell to get it this year.