NFL Week 12: Turkey talk and Wembley kick-off times debate
There's plenty to look forward to in week 12 of the NFL season, and also the feast of football from Thanksgiving night, and I'll get to all of that in a moment.
But first, a story appeared in the American sporting press recently which got relatively small coverage stateside, but certainly got UK fans talking on 5 live NFL last week.
The story, first published by Adam Schefter of ESPN, was that the NFL was considering moving the kick-off times for the international series games in London back to 18:00 GMT from early afternoon, to fit in line with the normal American scheduling.
The concept when the first game was moved to the early time slot in 2014 was in the main, for television reasons. The NFL dominated the ratings in the US on Sundays in three time slots - 1pm, 4pm and primetime at 8pm. Coincidentally, it did the same on Monday and Thursday evenings. So because of the time difference across the pond, they could also grab the viewers over breakfast television. Enjoy a live game from London over your coffee and pancakes!
Fast forward two years, the ratings have dropped and there is concern from the NFL hierarchy. Numerous reasons have been given for the slump in figures, mainly that the primetime games haven't featured enough star teams, that the market is now saturated with live football, and for east coast viewers, London games start at 9.30am - that's fine, but if you live in Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles, it's a 6.30am wake-up call.
So you can understand from the NFL's perspective why they are floating the idea. But here's the rub. All I have written about so far is the US television audience. What happened when the games were shifted to the early afternoon over here, I believe, changed the game for the better in the UK and Europe.
Prior to the Detroit-Atlanta game at Wembley in 2014, games were selling out anyway. But the number one reason to have the international series in the first place was to grow the game in other markets outside the US. It was doing just that, but 18:00 GMT on a Sunday isn't the most social time to get to and from Wembley.
Hardcore fans would make the effort as they wanted the genuine article so much. Plus (and I know from first-hand experience) the NFL UK worked tirelessly to make it an event that fans wanted to return to, over and over again.
The shift to 13:30 GMT, I believe, allowed a larger number of people from across the UK to sample the NFL. A game finishing at around 17:00 meant that those from from further afield could make the journey, return at a reasonable hour and not either take the Monday off work or be bleary-eyed when going to their jobs the next morning.
More youngsters could also enjoy. As a dad of a six-year-old daughter, I'd be more inclined to take her to London from Leicestershire knowing that she'd be in bed at a reasonable hour, ready for school the next day.
The other demographic that it helped (for the same reasons as above) were those travelling from Ireland and continental Europe. Flights from London airports in the early evening are more readily available and so they, too, benefited from bringing it forward by four-and-a-half hours.
There is no doubt that a 13:30 start widened the opportunity for those who had never sampled American football to try it for the first time. Growing the game. The reason it was done in the first place.
With an 18:00 kick-off - and assuming the game doesn't go into overtime - you'll be done by 21:00. Then you have to get out of Wembley along with 80,000 others, head back to the car and sit in jams on the capital's constantly busy A roads and subsequently slow-moving motorways, or head to Wembley Park Tube station with hoards of others. It's 22:00 before you feel like you're getting anywhere.
I did a quick check on the rail timetables too. The last trains on a Sunday to these destinations, at the time of writing, are:
- Manchester: 21:51 from Euston
- Newcastle: 21:45 from King's Cross
- Leeds: 22:10 from King's Cross
- Nottingham: 22:30 from St Pancras
Make-able yes, but it's a big ask, and you would think about leaving early to catch them. Coach services go later but can take an eternity, even if you live in south-east England.
In my opinion, earlier kick-off times work better for not only the supporters that are regulars but for those the NFL wants to entice to their product.
So the question has to be asked: who is the international series for?
Cowboys and Lions give thanks on 'turkey day'
Moving on, Thanksgiving football has its ups and downs. Tradition dictates that the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys will always host games on "turkey day", and we also (since 2006) get a primetime game.
In years past, it's not common that either the Lions or the Cowboys were leading their respective divisions at the same time. So there was plenty to look forward too as both had important divisional match-ups against sides who also had winning records.
Once Aretha Franklin had finished her seemingly endless rendition of the national anthem - there's nobody who loves Aretha more than me, but come on - the fare on offer didn't disappoint, with a low-scoring but tight Lions win over the Vikings nudging them ahead in the NFC North, and the Cowboys overcoming the Redskins in a more open contest.
Washington will rue the two Dustin Hopkins missed field goals with a losing deficit of five points. America's team are now looking good for home field advantage come play-off time. The other aspect is that despite defeat, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins continued his exceptional form. He got the franchise tag last season which has earned him $20m (£16.08m) on a one-year deal.
He will be getting the long-term big money deal he craves this off-season without doubt, and his team is still well in wild card contention.
The primetime game between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis was vital to both teams' post-season chances and Ben Roethlisberger v Andrew Luck would have been a great watch. Luck, however, was in the NFL's concussion protocol and wasn't ready to go.
Back-up Scott Tolzien tried and had driven the Colts twice to the Steelers goalline, but both times coming away with nothing. Had Luck been playing, this would have been a much tighter contest.
The Steelers have a half-game lead over Baltimore (who play on Sunday) while the Colts have lost momentum in pursuit of the Texans in the AFC South.
Five things to watch for this weekend
1. Our commentary on 5 live NFL comes from Oakland on Sunday as the AFC West leaders take on the resurgent Carolina Panthers. The Panthers will be without talismanic linebacker Luke Kuechly and so may have to go toe-to-toe with the Raiders offensively. Oakland will be keen to keep their one-game lead over the Broncos and Chiefs, who play each other on Sunday.
2. Staying in the NFC South, with Carolina coming up on the rails, the Falcons (with a 6-4 record) have a tricky home game against the Cardinals while the Buccaneers (5-5) after two straight wins play host to the rampant Seahawks. Watch this division closely as the Saints host the Rams and it could become very tight.
3. Miami's Jay Ajayi ran for 200 yards apiece against Pittsburgh and Buffalo earlier in the season. This week he takes on the 49ers (won one, lost nine) at home. He may rush for 500 yards against them.
4. The Green Bay Packers. Lots of strife in title-town about their slide. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers says they can win out for the rest of the season. They start at the Eagles (5-5) on Monday night. I'll be glued.
5. Cleveland. Is this the week they notch their first win? They host the Giants (7-3). So probably not.