The Jets and Falcons Go London Calling
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week sees the NFL resume one of its most beloved and beloathed traditions after a one-year COVID-related absence. Not the Pro Bowl; voting for that doesn't open until November. I'm talking about the other traditional fixture nobody wants to play in, nobody wants to travel for, and people only go to watch because there's no alternative available in their home city. That's right, this weekend sees the NFL return to London, baby! Let those Clash network TV royalties roll in.
Bryan: London may be calling, but I, for one, will be hitting the snooze. Not only is this the London game, but this is the annual "oh gods why is it so early?" game. 9:30 a.m. on the east coast is doable, if earlier than I want to watch football, but a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call in Los Angeles to watch Jets-Falcons? The NFL really is testing the theory that football fans will watch anything.
Andrew: Honestly, for Jets-Falcons, I might be hitting the snooze button, and it's a 2:30 p.m. kickoff here. I have normally been up for seven hours on a Sunday by that point. I might go back to bed in the afternoon just so I can say I slept through it.
Bryan: We figured we had to get one last opportunity to take shots at the NFL's Anglophenia while we have our resident U.K. correspondent Scrambling with us, so a simple question to start off with: does anyone care that the Falcons and Jets are coming to town? The NFL always hypes these games up as huge events, when normally this would be buried deep in the early window with, like, Kevin Kugler and Mark Sanchez on the call.
Andrew: While this may be the sort of game that makes even Red Zone reconsider their "every touchdown from every game" policy, these are indeed usually capital-E Events on the British American Football calendar. What can I say? When you don't have a local team—or worse, when your "local" team is the Jaguars—you'll watch just about anything you can get. At least the teams are almost equally bad: No. 30 and No. 32 in DVOA. Can't wait.
Bryan: It's probably a good thing No. 31 isn't showing up; recent events have made the idea of Urban Meyer on a pub crawl probably not an ideal look for the league.
Andrew: Meyer will get his chance against the Dolphins the following weekend ... well, assuming he lasts that long as Jaguars head coach.
Bryan: Perhaps Meyer can claim he was just tired and emotional.
Andrew: Speaking of tired and emotional, I just noticed the Dolphins are also in the bottom seven of DVOA. We're getting to host four of the bottom seven teams in DVOA in successive weekends, including each of the bottom three. We like to mock the standard of the teams the NFL sends here (mainly because they keep sending the Jaguars), but this year may well take the proverbial biscuit. All we need now is them to relocate the Titans-Texans clash in Week 11.
Bryan: You guys desperately need a better trade deal—when you send Premier League teams over here for exhibitions, we get the good ones, at least!
Andrew: Well, the good teams and Arsenal, but that's another matter. And don't get me started on either post-Brexit trade deals or the still-not-dead-yet plans to play actual Premier League fixtures overseas.
Bryan: Yeah, who would be crazy enough to play games that counted an ocean away from their fan bases? It'd be an act of utter greed and desperation.
Andrew: Counterpoint: the Jaguars might have more fans in the U.K. than they do in Florida. The Chargers definitely have more fans in the U.K. than they do in Los Angeles.
Bryan: Well, when you have the opportunity to move to a city where you're the ninth-most popular sports team, you have to take it.
The Jets-Falcons game will almost assuredly be more relevant for the first overall draft pick than anything to do with football in January, but I suppose that's why these games are so early in the season. Everyone's still technically alive, and with a 17-game season, even 1-3 or 0-4 really isn't toast just yet, especially not in the wild AFC. We're not quite at the point where teams are just playing out the string. Get those terrible teams out early. It feels like we're talking about this every year; in 2019 we saw the Panthers-Buccaneers and Bears-Raiders games get shipped over to London; those teams ended with a combined record of 26-38.
Andrew: While we have had some woeful teams over the years, we have never seen a full slate quite this bad. This year's teams aspire to a record of 26-38. They're currently a combined 3-13.
Bryan: In fact, the idea that we're always shipping out our worst teams isn't entirely backed up by the facts. There have been 28 regular-season games in London; only nine of them have featured two teams that failed to have a winning record by the end of the season. I mean, a third of your games being between teams ranging from below average to terrible is far from ideal, but not every game is Jets-Falcons. About a third of all games don't have a team with a winning record in them; 84 of the 256 games last season fit that criteria, and a few even took place outside the NFC East. If you were just to pluck games at random from the NFL schedule and designate them as London games, there'd be a 60% chance you'd have at least nine of these loserrific games ending up being played to a montage of Oasis songs. Into all life, some crap must fall.
Andrew: In general, I'd rather have two mediocre teams than one good and one bad, anyway. The Raiders-Bears and Panthers-Buccaneers games from 2019 were far more competitive than the Rams-Bengals and Texans-Jaguars non-events. We generally accept that not every game can be the 2008 Chargers-Saints classic. There are limits, however, and Falcons-Jets is definitely testing those limits.
Bryan: At least it should be close, which helps, and the NFL has done a good job of sending close games London's way. Fourteen of the 29 games (including this week's matchup) had a spread of three points or less, and that isn't random chance. Once again, about a third of all NFL games are within three points in the pre-game spread, so to be at about 50% is certainly something. We all can point and laugh when London gets, say, the Rams against the Bengals in 2019 (the Rams were 12-point favorites), but those are generally the exceptions to the rule.
Andrew: The year before, 2017, might not have been worse according to the point spread, but it sure was on the field. The closest of the five international series games was at Twickenham, and it finished Vikings 33, Browns 16. Two of the London teams failed to score, losing 20-0 (the Jay Cutler Dolphins against the Saints, yay!) and 33-0. The Jaguars beat the Ravens 44-7 at Wembley, and the Patriots beat the Raiders 33-8 in Mexico City.
Bryan: The Rams-Bengals and Vikings-Browns games were two of the five double-digit lines the NFL has sent London's way. The others:
- In 2007, the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants (-10) took on Cam Cameron's Dolphins. The Giants won, 13-10.
- In 2009, the Patriots (-15.5) matched up against Raheem Morris' Buccaneers. The Patriots won, 35-7.
- In 2013, Jim Harbaugh's 49ers (-14.5) faced Gus Bradley's Jaguars. The 49ers won, 42-10.
Andrew: I was at that Patriots-Buccaneers game. My wife paid for me and a friend to go for the weekend. We had incredible seats, way up in the rafters, almost level with the 50-yard line. It was amazing, like full-game all-22. The Brandon Meriweather interception return touchdown was a piece of art. The entire day, from the fan zone in the morning right through to the Underground ride back to the hotel, was brilliant. The result of the game was almost incidental. We were there for the experience, and it was definitely an experience. Soccer games have nowhere near the same level of pomp and ceremony.
Bryan: From the NFL's perspective, that seems almost ideal, yeah? They have trained American fans to tune in to Thursday Night Football even when Davis Mills is under center, so a bit of pomp and ceremony to help people ignore the fact that the product on the field is, shall we say, slightly less than par seems right for the course. Come for the fireworks and the fried food, and maybe a football game might break out.
Andrew: Then this year, you add to the mix another piece of normality returning after 2020, and people champing at the bit for an excuse to go away for a weekend, and this has the potential to be one of the most successful years yet, in complete defiance of the product on the field. Which explains why we get these games: when the bad games still sell out, where's the incentive to send the good ones?
Bryan: Yeah, so far, there has been no incentive, and the NFL isn't precisely showing some initiative. We have seen a normal amount of games between bad teams, and a higher-than-average number of games between close teams, but games between good teams? The NFL doesn't like shipping that stuff overseas, at least not yet. Of the 28 games that have been played in London, exactly two have featured matchups between teams that finished the year with winning records.
In 2017, the #Sacksonville Jaguars made their near-annual pilgrimage to the U.K. to take on the still-Joe-Flacco-led Ravens. I somehow suspect the NFL did not expect this to be a matchup between winning teams, considering the Jaguars' record before ... and since ... and the entire franchise just in general. The next year, London got Chargers-Titans, which is more in line with the idea of actually sending good teams to play. We have yet to see a game in London between two playoff teams and, uh, somehow I suspect 2021 won't be the year we break that streak.
Andrew: It's also noteworthy which teams have not been called on to give up a home game for the London series. No Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys, no Green Bay Packers or New England Patriots. Instead, it's teams who have a favor to ask from the league (Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams), the Jacksonville Jaguars, and assorted generally bad teams such as the Buccaneers. So there is still an element of (understandable) reluctance on the part of owners, and it's still generally seen as an obligation rather than a privilege.
Bryan: An obligation that they're doubling down on, of course. This offseason, the NFL announced that all 32 teams will play internationally at least once every eight years, with up to four neutral-site games being scheduled each year. If you're doing the math, you're right; that's 64 slots every eight years, and since each team only needs to play "at least" one away from home, there will almost assuredly still be some teams that don't get tagged quite so often.
Andrew: In other words, Trevor Lawrence better have his passport ready.
Bryan: And not just for London, either—the NFL plans to start playing games in Germany in the near future as well, which makes tons of sense from the league's point of view. By the end of NFL Europe, five of the six teams left had moved to Germany, and the fan base is growing fast—faster than it is in the U.K. at the moment. Hell, there are more Germans who watch the NFL than there are Americans who watch the NHL!
Andrew: Ja, genau, das macht sehr viel sinn. I have always wondered why they pushed London so hard ahead of playing one or more games in Germany.
Bryan: They have played in Germany before, with five preseason games going there in the early 1990s, but I would have to imagine the language barrier is the reason the U.K. got dibs when they started bringing real games to Europe. A lot easier to run your regular marketing and hype campaigns without as much translation and localization.
Andrew: Better hope, for Roger Goodell's sake, that they keep the games away from Frankfurt and Hamburg. If you think a president calling himself a doughnut is bad...
Bryan: I have family in Germany too, so if the NFL does play a game in Munich in 2022, as the current odds-on favorite would have you believe, maybe I'll use it as an excuse to get over there, assuming international travel becomes, uh, a thing again.
Andrew: At some point, as you go farther east, time zones start to become a factor. I'd put the cutoff east of Germany, but western Russia is probably the limit. I'm not sure that we need teams trying to sync their body clocks to Beijing or Tokyo.
Bryan: You're right, the NFL has suggested that's impractical, at best. But they have turned their eyes on something a little closer to home, time zone-wise: Brazil. A game in the Maracanã wouldn't have to worry about clock-shifting; no 6:30 a.m. wakeup calls there. After the U.K., Germany, Canada, and Mexico, Brazil probably makes the most sense if the NFL wants to keep expanding their international inventory. It certainly makes more sense than heading to Australia or something and playing games at midnight.
Andrew: Similar to the U.K. and Europe, you'd imagine that Brazil provides some inroads into the rest of South America too. I know that groups of fans from all over Europe travel to the London games, as it's far more practical than travelling to the United States. That's part of what makes them such a spectacle. I'm sure travel within South America is more complicated than it was until recently between the U.K. and Europe, and I'm not sure how big a factor income differences will be, but that does make sense as a target market. Get your Cairo Santos jerseys here!
Bryan: Yeah, I think there are plenty of reasons why it's fifth on the list, and why European games make more sense despite the time zone and travel difficulties, but if the NFL wants to keep expanding—and considering how much they drone on about it, they really do—there are few worlds left to conquer other than South America. Brazil may not be the final frontier, but you can see it from there.
Andrew: If nothing else, it gives me hope that in a few years, somebody can revisit our Rest of the World squads and assemble one that isn't relying on army brats and Robert Griffin to fill out the roster. When that happens, we'll know that the NFL as a global sport has truly arrived.
Bryan: The Rest of the World squad is still fairly lacking; it takes a long time to generate international interest in a sport as something you do as opposed to something you watch. That's one reason the NFL is behind an effort to get five-on-five flag football included in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic games. New Olympic rules allow each host city to have some one-off sports, sports that don't have the same international staying power of track and field or aquatics, but deserve some time in the spotlight nonetheless. So Tokyo had karate, Paris will have breakdancing, and Los Angeles? Well, they're picking through a list of sports including baseball, cricket, and yes, flag football.
I'm going to go way out on a limb and say this won't happen. Heck, the last World Cup of American Football didn't happen, because the International Federation of American Football split into two and had all sorts of arguments that blew everything up and they're still sort of recovering from that. But hey, if you want to watch the best that international football has to offer, you can attend the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, where flag football will make its debut.
Let me go even further out on that limb and predict the medals, both for 2022 and a potential 2028. The U.S. will win gold and Canada will win silver, as those are the two countries which actively care about and participate in gridiron-like substances. The bronze will go to Japan. There have been five World Cups of American Football. Japan has won gold every year that neither the U.S. nor Canada have entered, silver every year either the U.S. or Canada has entered, and bronze every year both the U.S. and Canada have entered. Seems fairly straightforward there. I mean, no one can doubt the strength of Japan's X-League and their massive powerhouses, the IBM Big Blue and the Tokyo Gas Creators.
That's the Creators of Tokyo Gas, not the Creators of Gas from Tokyo. Very important to get the inflection right on that one.
Andrew: Alright, so if you learn nothing else from this article, dear reader, you at least learned this: if you want to watch the best international gridiron football teams, you head to Alabama, but if you want to watch the worst domestic gridiron football teams, you need to head to London. Got that? Good.
Bryan: I never claimed any of this made sense!
Andrew: Neither does 70,000 people converging on a stadium in a foreign city to watch the New York Jets "at" the Atlanta Falcons, and yet here we are—complaining about it bitterly while loving every minute of it. Fans of the teams who lose a home game may disagree, and I wouldn't begrudge them their disagreement, but welcome back to London, NFL. It has been a looong couple of years without you.
Keep Choppin' Wood
49ers kick returner Trenton Cannon had a day to forget against the Seahawks. In a normal week, just the mistake he made on punt coverage would have made him a candidate for this award: Cannon had a chance to down a 49ers punt around the 2-yard line, but instead rolled into the end zone while holding the ball to give Seattle a touchback. However, that was not the worst mistake of his day: he also muffed a kickoff, recovered the ball, then got up and fumbled it again, giving Seattle the ball in scoring position. Then, on the kickoff following that score, he let the ball bounce, fielded it at the 1-yard line, and was only able to return it to the 7. Given that the 49ers signed him specifically for his special teams prowess, this was not exactly the ideal display from the former Jets and Panthers running back.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Rah-rah press conference soundbites about biting knees have concealed the fact that Lions head coach Dan Campbell is a relatively forward-thinking, analytically minded head coach. Against the Bears, his underdog outfit trailed 14-0 early when they faced fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line. Most conservative coaches would have been content to kick the field goal and get points on the board, but Campbell had his team go for the touchdown. Alas, Jared Goff's pass to D'Andre Swift fell incomplete and the Lions went on to lose quite handily, but it's good to see underdog teams use underdog strategies rather than settle for losing the old-fashioned way.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
In the third quarter, trailing 27-13 at home to the division-rival Arizona Cardinals, the Los Angeles Rams faced fourth-and-4 from Arizona's 27-yard line. The Rams had played fourth down conservatively to this point, including kicking a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line and punting on fourth-and-3 from midfield. However, a field goal in this situation would have done little for their chances, as they would still have trailed by 11 points. Despite this, Sean McVay continued to play conservatively and called for the field goal, only for kicker Matt Gay to miss the 46-yard attempt. The Cardinals drove for a touchdown on the ensuing drive, and the Rams never came within two scores again.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Over the previous few weeks, the Ravens and Chargers provided blueprints for competing with a Chiefs team that scores 3.5 points a drive—don't give them the ball! Key fourth-down conversions helped seal the win for both Baltimore and Los Angeles, and they have made it clear what teams around the league should do. So when Nick Sirianni kicked a field goal on fourth-and-3 from inside the red zone, we already had our conservative pens out and ready to go. But the fact that was preceded by a timeout to avoid a delay of game that would have turned a 29-yard attempt into a 34-yard attempt? Baffling, as was the post-game explanation that they "assumed" there was a delay of game on the play. And, speaking of poor timeout usage, why didn't Sirianni call a timeout at the end of the first half, on Kansas City's side of the field and facing third-and-9 with 27 seconds left? They let 12 seconds run off the clock while they drew up a play to get out of bounds to stop the clock which is ... a bizarre choice, to say the least, even before it failed and the Eagles were sacked out of field goal range. It may be an Eagles coach curse to not understand how clock management works; hopefully Sirianni can fumigate Andy Reid's old office or something before this gets worse.
'Teeing Off' Fantasy Player of the Week
Tee Higgins' absence has left openings in Cincinnati's passing attack, and Ja'Marr Chase can't catch literally everything. Against the Jaguars, it was C.J. Uzomah who rose to the task, setting career highs in with 95 receiving yards and two touchdowns. And they weren't little 1-yard scores, either. Both touchdowns came from outside the red zone and required Uzomah to turn on the jets to race around Jaguars defenders—not exactly the toughest task in the known universe, but still an impressive day from someone who generally doesn't do this sort of thing.
— NFL (@NFL) October 1, 2021
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
We're once again passing up the Lions, as their late-game garbage heroics briefly threatened the Bears with actual heroics. So we turn to Miami and DeVante Parker. In the fourth quarter alone, Parker caught three passes for 70 yards and a touchdown and drew a pair of pass interference penalties deep downfield as well, setting up the other fourth-quarter Miami touchdown. And all this would have been relevant if Miami had ever had the ball down less than 17 points at any point in the fourth quarter, as the Colts had an answer to everything Miami did.
— NFL (@NFL) October 3, 2021
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
There is not a lot of consolation to take from a 40-0 drubbing, even from a team that also won 35-0 just two weeks ago. Still, the remaining Texans fans could have taken heart from a strong performance by the defense. Houston's defense intercepted Josh Allen on his first pass attempt, held the Bills to three field goals on possessions that began at or on their own side of midfield, and broke up a fourth-and-3 pass to end the only first-half possession Buffalo began from inside their own 30-yard line. Despite being handed terrible field position all day, they just about kept Houston in the game until the fourth quarter started. Sure, it all fell apart after that, but with just something, anything on offense, the defense might have done enough to make a game of things against a very strong Bills squad.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
Here at Scramble, we love weird edge cases and plays that rarely come up. And something happened this week for just the second time in NFL history, in such a remarkable coincidence that we couldn't not highlight it, despite it involving a previously winless team.
Tennessee's Randy Bullock missed a 49-yard field goal in overtime, the potential game-tying kick. Because he missed, the Jets won, and picked up their first win of the year.
— NFL (@NFL) October 3, 2021
The play is big enough on its own merits, of course. A 49-yard field goal isn't that hard, all things considered, so Bullock's miss cost the Titans 36.8% win probability, per EdjSports' model. In a tight race in the AFC South, it cost the Titans 11.0% in our playoff odds too, as every win might count in what's looking like a race to the bottom. It was the first career win for Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson, both of which are worth celebrating. But no, that's not why we picked it.
See, a missed game-tying field goal in overtime? That has only been possible since 2012, when the NFL ended true sudden death. According to Stathead, there have only been 11 attempts at game-tying overtime field goals in history. And this is only the second miss. The other time? Back in 2015, when Josh Brown of the Giants missed a 48-yarder to give the Jets a victory. That's right, the Jets are the only team to ever benefit from a play like this, and it has happened to them twice. And to make matters better, the kicker who made the field goal in overtime in 2015 to give the Jets the lead in the first place? Randy Bullock. It's a small world.
Bryan: A tale of two contests this year. Both Andrew and I continue to groove through the Double Survival league, adding a pair of wins to our trophy cases this week—only a Giants loss to Atlanta stains either of our records as we continue to find victories around the league. Our Locks of the Week, however, are much less enticing. While I finally got on the board by trusting the Jets—never a sound strategy, I must say—Andrew's lack of faith in Matt Nagy was not rewarded, as the Lions failed to cover. We'll get back to .500. Eventually.
Records to Date
Andrew: As you may recall from our preseason articles, I was a bit higher on the Browns than our preseason numbers. They're justifying that faith, up to fourth in DVOA and top-10 in every category. Meanwhile, the Chargers languish in 14th place despite a 3-1 record that leads a strong AFC West. I'm not sure I buy that the gap between these teams is that big. Justin Herbert has continued the fine form from his rookie season, the Chargers have beaten two AFC playoff contenders back-to-back, and only their seemingly irreparable special teams issues are keeping them out of the top 11 in every category. I suspect the Chargers pull off the narrow upset at home. L.A. Chargers (+1) vs. Cleveland.
Bryan: I'm going to be indisposed this weekend attending a funeral, so I'm going to focus on the one game where I know I'll be able to pay full attention: the Rams at Seahawks on Thursday night. I'm surprised this line didn't drop more after the respective performances of the two teams last week, but the public has come in strongly for the Rams—they have gone from -1 in the immediate wake of the games on Sunday night to -2.5 as I write this on Tuesday afternoon. It's doubly baffling for me because I figured the line would drop in the other direction. I know the history of the Rams over the Seahawks in the rock-paper-scissors paradigm that has been the top of the NFC West in recent years, but Seattle found something against San Francisco by going up-tempo and moving Russell Wilson around more—you know, looking like an actual functioning offense. Matthew Stafford is a harder matchup than an injured Jimmy Garoppolo or a green Trey Lance, so I would be far from shocked if the Rams won, but I'm grabbing the points here. Give me Seattle +2.5.
Double Survival League
Records to Date
Bryan: CIN, CLE, DEN, GB, NYG, WAS
Andrew: ARI, CIN, DEN, GB, NYG, WAS
Andrew: Oh, how tempting it is to look at that London matchup and play both teams against each other. Both the Jets and Falcons have been woeful to begin the year, and even though the Jets upset the Titans last week, neither looks likely to be significantly better anytime soon. However, the difference for the Jets is that they get to play the rest of the AFC South later in the year. Atlanta has the Jets, the Jaguars, and ... really not much else that I'd fancy them to win. So I'm picking the Atlanta Falcons in this head-to-head and hoping to grab a Jets win later in the year.
Bryan: I strongly considered Atlanta myself, but I have made it policy to never bet against Robert Saleh after a win. So instead I'm looking up north. My double-preseason binky, the Minnesota Vikings, are clearly not as good as I thought they would be to begin the year, and while I think they'll avoid double-digit losses, I'm running out of games where I could confidently call them a clear favorite. In fact, looking at their schedule, I'm down to two—this week against Detroit, and Week 14 against Pittsburgh. So on the one hand, I might have to pick against the Good Bad Team, the one that always seems to put a charge into any opponent; they'll pick up a win eventually and it could be this week! On the other, I could pick against a team that seems dead in the water in large part because their quarterback is cooked. But that's months from now; while I'm not sure the Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins Steelers would be a significant threat to, well, anyone, I'm certainly not going to risk chancing the odds that Pittsburgh wakes up to their quarterback situation! So I'll take the Vikings over the Lions and risk the weekly Dan Campbell heart attack.
Andrew: You state your case for the Minnesota Vikings well, and it's a case I agree with sufficiently that I'm going to make this our weekly "same" pick. Seems like we're picking at least one game in common every week so far. It may as well be against the Lions as against anybody else.
Bryan: My other pick is easier—it's the Baltimore Ravens over Indianapolis. It's my second-most confident pick of the week, and I don't want to pick the Bucs a week after they played a nail-biter against the Patriots. The Ravens are hot, they have beaten the Colts four out of their last five matchups, and I still have negative faith in Carson Wentz.