Folks, you made it. After 207 days, meaningful NFL football will be played tonight, when the Los Angeles Rams begin their title defense against the Buffalo Bills. The game promises to be a memorable season opener between two teams who hope to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the conclusion of Super Bowl LVII.
As stated above, Thursday night's game has a chance to produce memories that will last well beyond the NFL's opening weekend. There have been many memorable Week 1 games and performances over the years, especially over the past 30 years. Last year's season opener was one of those moments, as Dak Prescott and Tom Brady dueled in a classic game that came down to the wire (more on that later). Brady has had a hand in multiple epic Week 1 moments during his once-in-a-generation career.
Before the Rams and Bills kick things off, here's a look back at some of the best Week 1 moments from the past four decades.
1994: Rice breaks Jim Brown's NFL record
Already considered the greatest receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice further etched his name into NFL lore when he passed Jim Brown for the most career touchdowns in league history in Week 1 of the 1994 season. Rice, who at that time was entering his 10th season in San Francisco, caught three touchdown passes that night as the 49ers rolled over the Raiders 44-14. Rice would end the '94 season the way he started it, catching three touchdown passes in San Francisco's win over the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
#OnThisDay September 5, 1994 - Jerry Rice breaks Jim Brown's record for most career TDs #NFL #JerryRice #QuoteOfTheWeek #TheGreatest #Inspo pic.twitter.com/ekldWGMIYK— SportsCastr (@SportsCastrLive) September 5, 2017
1994: Marino, Bledsoe light up the scoreboard
One of the most entertaining Week 1 games took place in Miami in 1994 in a game that pitted two prolific passers against one another in Dan Marino and Drew Bledsoe. The quarterbacks led their teams to a combined 74 points and nearly 1,000 total yards.
Bledsoe's four touchdown passes helped the Patriots build a double-digit lead, but Marino's five touchdown passes -- specifically his game-winning 35-yard touchdown pass to Irving Fryar late in the fourth quarter -- proved to be the difference in Miami's 39-35 victory.
1998: Long TD run in OT ends wild game in San Francisco
The New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers gave fans one of the most entertaining opening-season games in NFL history in 1998. In a game that featured two teams that would win 12 games during the regular season, the Jets and 49ers combined to score eight touchdowns while amassing 1,022 total yards. 49ers quarterback Steve Young threw for 363 yards and three scores, while Jets receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet combined to catch 15 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns.
The star of the day was San Francisco running back Garrison Hearst, who scorched the entire Jets defense on his 96-yard, game-winning touchdown run on the 49ers' first play of overtime.
Random Highlight of the Day: #49ers RB Garrison Hearst 96-yard walk-off touchdown against the #Jets with great blocking down the field by @terrellowenspic.twitter.com/ix3QKHsldP— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) June 22, 2019
1998: Randy Moss' wild NFL debut
Despite a prolific college career at Marshall, Randy Moss had to wait until the Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 21st pick in the '98 draft. Moss, who said that his draft snub motivated him throughout his rookie season, made the teams that passed on him immediately regret their decision.
Against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, Moss caught four of five targets for 95 yards that included two long touchdown bombs from Randall Cunningham. Moss went on to catch 69 passes for 1,313 yards and an NFL rookie record 17 touchdown passes while helping the Vikings become the third NFC team in NFL history to win 15 regular-season games.
Randy Moss. The 🐐. The Hall of Famer. *reminder* these are ROOKIE highlights. pic.twitter.com/5ssgCQhb0g— SKOL SQUAD (@SkolHighlights) August 2, 2018
1999: 'The Greatest Show on Turf' is born
No one was expecting much from the 1999 Rams, especially not after losing starting quarterback Trent Green to a season-ending injury during the preseason. The Rams, however, got the attention of the entire NFL following their 27-10 blowout victory over Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1.
While St. Louis' defense held Baltimore's offense in check, the real story was the Rams' high-octane offense, as Kurt Warner -- Green's replacement and a grocery store employee just several years earlier -- threw three touchdown passes on his way to one of the most memorable seasons in NFL history.
“Kurt Warner and his stats… easily deserve to be in the HOF.” - @marshallfaulk— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) November 17, 2016
Proof that he's a worthy semifinalist for the #PFHOF17 👇 pic.twitter.com/3iBciJStNo
Warner would win league and Super Bowl MVP honors that season, while the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense would take the league by storm over the next several years.
2000: Pickle juice aids Eagles victory over Cowboys
With temperatures at about 105 degrees, then-Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid famously gave his players pickle juice to help them cope with the sweltering heat. He then set the tone for the game with an onside kick on the opening kickoff. The Eagles recovered the kick and never looked back, dismantling the Cowboys 41-14 behind Duce Staley's 201 rushing yards and a Philadelphia defense that held Dallas to a putrid 167 total yards. The game was a passing of the torch of sorts in the NFC East; the Eagles would become the division's most consistent team during the 2000s, while the Cowboys would win just one postseason game during the decade.
2002: Thrown helmet ruins Browns' season opener
The Cleveland Browns appeared to get a season-opening win over the visiting Kansas City Chiefs before the officials penalized Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd for throwing off his helmet in celebration before the Chiefs' last offensive play was over. Instead of a turnover on downs, Rudd's penalty put Kansas City -- trailing 39-37 -- in field-goal range with no time left. Since NFL games can not end in a penalty, Morten Andersen was given an opportunity to try a 40-yard kick. Anderson, one of the most reliable kickers in league history, came through while sending the Chiefs home with an improbable win and leaving Browns fans sick to their stomachs in the process.
The most infamous #Browns vs. Chiefs game will always be back in 2002 (the last time the Browns made the Playoffs) when Dwayne Rudd blew the game for Cleveland by throwing his helmet when he thought the game was over. pic.twitter.com/mEQHoDfkGZ— Jeff D Lowe 🔜 SDCC (@JeffDLowe) November 4, 2018
Cleveland would bounce back following its Week 1 fiasco, winning nine games that season while earning its first and only playoff appearance since returning to the NFL in 1999.
2004: Brady edges Manning in classic duel
While Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have had a slew of classic matchups over the years, there weren't many better than their Week 1 matchup in the first game of the 2004 season. After Marvin Harrison's touchdown catch from Manning gave the Colts a halftime lead, two Brady touchdowns and an Adam Vinatieri field goal gave New England a 27-17 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Manning, who got the Colts to within three points on a touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley with just over 11 minutes left, had Indianapolis threatening to tie the score on its final possession. But following Manning's 45-yard pass to Stokley that got the ball to New England's 19 with 1:13 left, a sack and two incomplete passes set the stage for Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who missed his 48-yard, game-tying attempt with 24 seconds remaining.
While Manning would go on to have an MVP season that included breaking Dan Marino's 20-year-old record for touchdown passes in a single season, Brady and the Patriots would beat the Colts for a second straight year in the postseason en route to their third Super Bowl win in a four-year span.
2004: 5 carries, 1 yard, 3 touchdowns
That was the unbelievably odd stat line produced by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis during Pittsburgh's Week 1 victory over the Oakland Raiders to kick off the 2004 season. Bettis, used exclusively as a short-yardage specialist to start the '04 season, had three 1-yard touchdown runs as the Steelers held off the Raiders' late rally to pull off the 24-21 victory.
5 carries.— SB Nation (@SBNation) November 26, 2017
Imagine losing to this Jerome Bettis fantasy stat line. pic.twitter.com/FsnRaI4fY8
Bettis would get considerably more playing time during the second half of the season, earning the last of his six Pro Bowl selections while helping Pittsburgh become the first AFC team to win 15 regular-season games.
2006: Peyton beats Eli in the 'Manning Bowl'
The Indianapolis Colts' championship season began with their highly anticipated Week 1 matchup with the New York Giants. The game was dubbed the "Manning Bowl" as it was the first game that pitted brothers Peyton and Eli Manning against one another.
Neither quarterback played great, however, combining to complete 60.8% of their passes for 523 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. The game's real star was kicker Adam Vinatieri, who booted four field goals in the Colts' 26-21 victory.
The Patriots' dominating 38-14 victory over the New York Jets is remembered for two things. It was the start of New England's 16-0 regular season, the only undefeated regular season since the NFL expanded the regular season to 16 games in 1978. While New England's suffocating defense held the Jets to just 227 total yards, Randy Moss, acquired by the Patriots that offseason, caught nine passes or 183 yards and a score that day while offering a preview of the record-setting season that was ahead for him and his teammates.
2007 vs NYJ: Brady with a 51 yard TD to Randy Moss with 3 Jets defenders around! pic.twitter.com/mHsJ6TGMhk— #FlashSZN (@ftbeard_17) June 12, 2019
That was also the game that birthed the beginning of "Spygate," when the Jets -- who were then coached by former Patriots assistant coach Eric Mangini -- caught members of New England's staff videotaping their defensive signals during the game. The Patriots were later fined $250,000 and were docked their 2008 first-round pick. New England coach Bill Belichick was also fined $500,000 by the NFL. New England would get to 18-0 before being upset by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
2009: Broncos' last-minute TD pass
There have been several memorable game-winning touchdown passes in Week 1, but Brandon Stokley's incredible game-winning play in Week 1 of the 2009 season takes the cake. With Denver trailing by a point with 28 seconds left, the veteran wideout caught Kyle Orton's deflected pass and turned it into an 87-yard touchdown catch.
🔊 "STOKLEY!!! DOWN THE SIDELINE!!!" 🔊— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) December 1, 2018
The time Brandon Stokley made Gus Johnson lose his mind.
(Sept. 13, 2009) @Broncos @bstokley14 #DENvsCIN pic.twitter.com/O6XNAxBKLE
2012: Manning dominates in Broncos debut
After missing the entire 2011 season, Peyton Manning showed during his Broncos debut that he was still capable of playing high-level football. Facing the Steelers' stout defense, Manning went 19 of 26 for 253 yards. He threw two touchdowns that included a 71-yard scoring strike to Demaryius Thomas that gave the Broncos the lead late in the fourth quarter. Manning's second touchdown gave put Denver in front for good, while Tracy Porter's pick-six of Ben Roethlisberger with 1:58 left sealed the Broncos' 31-19 win.
2016: Garoppolo fuels Patriots' comeback win
In his first NFL start, Jimmy Garoppolo helped lead the Patriots to a 23-21 nail-biting win over the Cardinals in Week 1. Garoppolo, who threw for 264 yards and a touchdown, completed five passes in the Patriots' game-winning drive that culminated with Stephen Gostkowski's 32-yard field goal with 3:48 left. Garoppolo and the Patriots' offense then watched as the Cardinals missed their last-minute field goal attempt. New England's 3-1 start without Tom Brady helped pave the way for the Patriots' fifth Super Bowl win since 2001.
2019: Lamar's breakout game
Despite his 6-1 record as a rookie, there were still some doubts surrounding Lamar Jackson as he entered his second season. Jackson responded to those doubts with a breathtaking performance in Week 1 of the 2019 season. In Miami against the Dolphins, Jackson completed 85% of his passes while throwing five touchdowns and recording a perfect passer rating. Jackson's performance that day (which occurred in a 59-10 rout) foreshadowed his MVP season that saw him lead the NFL in touchdown passes while also setting the NFL single-season rushing record.
In honor of Dolphins week for the Ravens, here’s Lamar Jackson dicing up Miami’s defense in Week 1 of the 2019 season— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) November 9, 2021
Jackson would finish the game completing 17-of-20 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns, leading Baltimore to a 59-10 victory pic.twitter.com/Sb7Y60KS7z
2021: Prescott shines against defending champions
In his first game after suffering a severe leg injury, Dak Prescott showed a national audience that he was still Dak Prescott. The Cowboys quarterback completed 42 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns against a formidable Buccaneers defense.
As good as Prescott was, however, he was not able to defeat Tom Brady, whose 379 yards and four touchdowns led the defending champions to a 31-29 win. Brady's 24-yard completion to Chris Godwin with 24 seconds left set up Ryan Succop's game-winning field goal.