Under smoke-filled skies in the West and coronavirus still raging across America, the National Football League asks: Are you ready for some football?
The NFL kicks off its 101st season of play Thursday night when the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs welcome the visiting Houston Texans to a sparsely filled Arrowhead Stadium.
The 8:20 p.m. ET contest, televised on NBC, will look and sound different than any in recent memory.
The Chiefs will allow only a smattering of socially distanced fans into their stadium, long regarded as one of the NFL’s loudest and most raucous. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, only 17,000 spectators — largely a lucky pool of season ticket holders — will be the stands, about 22 percent of Arrowhead’s capacity of more than 76,000.
The last time Kansas City Coach Andy Reid could remember stalking sidelines in front of so few fans was in 1985 as an assistant at San Francisco State, then a NCAA Division II program that no longer exists.
“If we were playing UC Davis, we would have that. But it’s been a while,” Reid said. “They had the ultimate jump ball just to get into the stadium, however, that was picked. So I know they’ll be revved up and ready to go.”
The rest of Week 1 will kickoff on Sunday, and fans will see a game that’ll look totally foreign to any ever played before this 2020 season.
That empty feeling of fans
The Chiefs are among only a handful of teams planning to allow any paid spectators.
Fan-less games will look particularly jarring when the Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Rams and L.A. Chargers all play in their glimmering, brand new stadiums.
The Rams play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET on NBC) at sparkling SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Rams’ housemates L.A. Chargers get their first chance to play at empty SoFi Stadium a week from Sunday against Kansas City.
The New York Giants and Jets, playing in America’s largest metropolitan region, have no immediate plans to allow any spectators into 10-year-old MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The San Francisco 49ers are scheduled to open the season Sunday against the visiting Arizona Cardinals, but league officials are keeping a close eye on Bay Area air quality that’s been severely compromised by raging wildfires in the West.
Benched by coronavirus
More than five dozen NFL players opted out of the 2020 season, due to concerns over the virus that has killed more than 190,000 Americans.
Kansas City offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a medical school graduate, is among the those taking the season off.
He’s spending this fall working at a long-term care facility in his native Canada, in hopes of treating elderly patients most at risk of COVID-19.
Spending twilight years in Florida
All-time great quarterback Tom Brady will lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in what will be a strange sight for even the most casual NFL fan.
Brady, 43, broke into the league in 2000 with the New England Patriots and led that franchise to nine Super Bowl appearances, winning six of them.
Black Lives Matter and the NFL
Elliott’s prediction comes despite the emphatic, long-held anti-kneeling posture of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
It’s not clear how the Black Lives Matter movement will materialize in other manners this season, but the social justice push will surely have an increased 2020 presence in the league where Colin Kaepernick once played.
A Black Lives Matter flag flies over the 49ers home, Levi’s Stadium, in Santa Clara, California.
The nation has taken a renewed look at systemic racism since the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25.
The Washington Football Team will play 2020 under that generic moniker after announcing in July it would remove its name that had long been identified as racist toward Native Americans.
Washington hopes to have a new name by the 2021 season.
The Chiefs this off season also announced they would ban fans from wearing faux-Native American headdresses or offensive face paint to home games.
This will be the first season of a new playoff format that will now include 14 teams in the post-season tournament, up from 12.
The eight division winners, four in each conference, will qualify along with six wildcard entrants, three each in NFC and AFC.
The first weekend of post-season play will include 12 teams — so all contending clubs, minus the No. 1 seed of both conferences — and they’ll play down to six survivors. Those remaining teams and the top two seeds will play for two more weekends to determine who plays in Super Bowl LV.
That title game is set for Feb. 7, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.