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The brief history of NFL Mexico games

The NFL’s history in Mexico actually dates back decades.

NFL: International Series-Houston Texans at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders will meet in Mexico City in Week 11, marking the third time that an NFL regular season game has been played in Estadio Azteca.

It’s the second time in as many years that the Raiders will travel South of the border. In 2016, they defeated the Houston Texans, 27-20, in Mexico City on Monday Night Football. For the Patriots, it’s a third international game, but each of the two other trips out of the country were to London.

That presents Tom Brady the chance to add another accomplishment to his impossibly great career résumé, and join a small list of other globetrotting quarterbacks:

To get that win, Brady will have to defeat the Raiders at 7,380 feet above sea level — 2,100 feet higher than Mile High Stadium in Denver. Few have had to contend with that kind of altitude, but the NFL’s history in Mexico actually dates back decades:

Aug. 11, 1968: Lions vs. Eagles (cancelled)

Days before the NFL was set to make its debut in Mexico City with an exhibition game at Estadio Azteca, it was abruptly cancelled. No reason was given, but the Associated Press reported that protests in the city coupled with no one caring much — tickets were selling for 40 cents — caused the cancellation.

Aug. 5, 1978: Saints 14, Eagles 7

The first game in Mexico happened a decade later at Estadio de la Ciudad de los Deportes, a 30,000-seat soccer venue that’s now called Estadio Azul. It wasn’t exactly the smoothest experience. Via ESPN:

"When we went there, they weren't prepared," Ron Jaworski, the Eagles' starting quarterback that season, says of that preseason matchup 38 years ago. "We played in a bullring, the locker rooms were too small, and the goal posts were crooked."

It wasn’t a literal bullring — there was one across the street — but the NFL didn’t return for 16 years.

1994-2001: American Bowl

Over a span of 20 seasons, the NFL aimed to expand its brand internationally with preseason games all over the globe, including stops in London, Tokyo, Montreal, Berlin and Barcelona, among others.

It included five stops at Estadio Azteca between 1994 and 2001:

  • Aug. 15, 1994: Oilers 6, Cowboys 0
  • Aug. 4, 1997: Dolphins 38, Broncos 19
  • Aug. 17, 1998: Patriots 21, Cowboys 3
  • Aug. 19, 2000: Colts 24, Steelers 23
  • Aug. 27, 2001: Cowboys 21, Raiders 6

The trips to Mexico did really well, including 112,376 fans in attendance in 1994 and 106,424 in 1998.

Oct. 2, 2005: Cardinals 31, 49ers 14

This marked the first regular season game ever played outside the United States and 103,467 fans filled Estadio Azteca for it. The success was part of the reason why the NFL began playing more regular season games internationally, including annual matchups at Wembley Stadium in London starting in 2007.

Nov. 21, 2016: Raiders 27, Texans 20

The NFL’s return to the country came over a decade later on Monday Night Football. Unfortunately, a major storyline in the game was the use of a laser pointer aimed primarily at Texans players, including quarterback Brock Osweiler.

Still, that won’t make the NFL think twice about returning to Mexico on Sunday or beyond, as the league continues to branch out to other countries of interest, including Canada, Germany and/or China.

Nov. 19, 2017: Patriots 33, Raiders 6

The good news for Mexican fans of the NFL was that they got to watch the defending Super Bowl champs play a regular season game. The bad news was they only got to see the Patriots beat the hell out of the Raiders. The best news of all, though, was that the game happened at all after an earthquake in Mexico City threatened to have the matchup moved.

Nov. 19, 2018: Chiefs vs. Rams (cancelled)

The NFL pulled the plug on the 2018 game in Mexico City due to concerns about the playing surface. The game was moved to Los Angeles instead and ended up being an instant classic.

Nov. 18, 2019: Chiefs 24, Chargers 17

The state of the grass at Estadio Azteca was again a concern in 2019, but the game was played as scheduled. After a slow start to the game, the Chiefs offense found life in the second half and pulled away from the Chargers. Philip Rivers led a drive down the field late, but a throw to the end zone in the final seconds was intercepted.

It was possibly the last game to be played in Mexico for the foreseeable future. While the league is interested in expanding its brand internationally, its contract with Mexico expires after the 2019 season and the issues with the playing surface have been consistently present on an annual basis.