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London Brings Out The Best In The NFL’s Dregs

The NFL will take over London for the 18th time — and the 11th consecutive year — this weekend when the Baltimore Ravens take on veteran overseas travelers the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium. The game will be the first of four set in England this season, the most that have been played in a calendar year.

For the NFL, the additional game — there have been three in London each of the past three seasons — represents a concerted effort to expand the popularity and global reach of its brand.1 For the British, it’s another chance to watch lousy football.

It’s no secret that the teams that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has sent have been overwhelmingly bad — and we aren’t just talking about the Jaguars. According to FiveThirtyEight’s pre-game Elo ratings, the harmonic mean of both teams’ ratings — a balanced measure of matchup quality that can better detect when both teams in a game are either good or bad — has been below average in 13 of the 17 games played in London.2 On top of that, all four games to be played in London this year will be below average, according to the team’s current Elo ratings.

London NFL games have been consistently below average

The harmonic mean of the Elo ratings of the teams in each matchup compared with 1500, roughly the rating of an average NFL team

YEAR DESIGNATED AWAY ELO DESIGNATED HOME ELO HARMONIC MEAN +/- AVERAGE
2014 Miami 1449 Oakland 1327 1385 -115
2015 Buffalo 1512 Jacksonville 1310 1404 -96
2017 Cleveland 1321 Minnesota 1501 1405 -95
2016 Indianapolis 1469 Jacksonville 1350 1407 -93
2010 Denver 1401 San Francisco 1418 1409 -91
2014 Dallas 1557 Jacksonville 1298 1416 -84
2013 San Francisco 1642 Jacksonville 1246 1417 -83
2007 N.Y. Giants 1553 Miami 1358 1449 -51
2013 Pittsburgh 1448 Minnesota 1477 1462 -38
2015 New York Jets 1478 Miami 1449 1463 -37
2017 Baltimore 1539 Jacksonville 1396 1464 -36
2014 Detroit 1541 Atlanta 1405 1470 -30
2017 Arizona 1529 L.A. Rams 1418 1471 -29
2015 Detroit 1432 Kansas City 1514 1472 -28
2016 N.Y. Giants 1466 L.A. Rams 1481 1473 -27
2017 New Orleans 1460 Miami 1519 1489 -11
2009 New England 1630 Tampa Bay 1375 1492 -8
2016 Washington 1509 Cincinnati 1525 1517 17
2012 New England 1678 St. Louis 1393 1522 22
2008 San Diego 1600 New Orleans 1470 1532 32
2011 Chicago 1543 Tampa Bay 1527 1535 35

All 2017 games are based on Elo ratings before Week 3.

The Jaguars are a big part of this, of course. Jacksonville has played in London four times, and the Elo rating of each of those four Jaguar teams ranks in the bottom five (among all 34 teams). Joining them in that bottom five are the 2014 Oakland Raiders. And it turns out that the Raiders’ game against the Miami Dolphins that year was the worst London matchup so far based on our Elo ratings. That game was so dreary that those Raiders, who fell to 0-4 after losing to Miami, fired their coach, Dennis Allen, not long after their plane touched down in the U.S. Perhaps by no coincidence, the Dolphins coach that year, Joe Philbin, would be fired the next season after starting 1-3. Philbin’s last game would be a loss to the Jets … in London.

But not every game played in London has been between NFL bottom feeders — sometimes a good team makes the trip (and, sure, plays a bottom feeder). The Brits have experienced Tom Brady and the New England Patriots twice, as well as the San Francisco 49ers the season after their latest Super Bowl appearance. But if you remove those three teams, the average London team,3 including this year’s Ravens and Jags, has an Elo rating of 1444. That’s roughly on par with this year’s 0-2 Cincinnati Bengals.

NFL fans will generally tune in regardless of who is playing. So perhaps the NFL’s intention was that the consistently poor quality of opponents would be scratched out by competitive, exciting contests. If that’s the case, the plan is generally working.

Blowout or bust

The point differential for regular-season NFL games played in London

YEAR DESIGNATED AWAY POINTS DESIGNATED HOME POINTS POINT DIFF WON BY ONE SCORE
2016 Washington 27 Cincinnati 27 0
2014 Detroit 22 Atlanta 21 1
2016 Indianapolis 27 Jacksonville 30 3
2007 New York Giants 13 Miami 10 3
2015 Buffalo 31 Jacksonville 34 3
2008 San Diego 32 New Orleans 37 5
2011 Chicago 24 Tampa Bay 18 6
2016 New York Giants 17 L.A. Rams 10 7
2013 Pittsburgh 27 Minnesota 34 7
2010 Denver 16 San Francisco 24 8
2015 New York Jets 27 Miami 14 13
2014 Dallas 31 Jacksonville 17 14
2014 Miami 38 Oakland 14 24
2009 New England 35 Tampa Bay 7 28
2013 San Francisco 42 Jacksonville 10 32
2015 Detroit 10 Kansas City 45 35
2012 New England 45 St. Louis Rams 7 38

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Ten of the 17 games — or 59 percent — have been decided by one score. That might not sound so thrilling, but just 35 percent of all NFL games played since 2007 have been decided by 8 points or fewer. One of last year’s London games was so tightly matched, no one won it. (Fortunately for Cincinnati and Washington, they were playing in the one NFL location where fans are content with a tie.)

Low-quality games usually lead to drops in attendance toward the end of the season. Not in London, though. All but two games have attracted a crowd of more than 80,000, with the highest NFL London crowd at 84,488 — for last year’s tie at Wembley. To put that in context, that average draw would have been the second-highest home attendance of any team in the league last season (behind only the Dallas Cowboys).

As Goodell continues to push some of his most mediocre teams onto the international scene, it turns out that they’re rewarding fans with some of the league’s most competitive play.

Footnotes

  1. The NFL will also return to Mexico City this season.

  2. Compared with 1500, roughly the rating of an average NFL team.

  3. Based on the harmonic mean.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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