This week, it was a 38-31 shootout between Super Bowl contenders that may have been the launching pad for the league’s next elite quarterback, Last week, it was a ratings smash that broke a years-long losing streak and showered northeastern Ohio in beer-adjacent liquids. So now we’ve got to ask ourselves:
Is Thursday Night Football good now?
The beleaguered format, once the dumping ground for all-urine uniforms and the Texans-Bengals games no one wanted, is 2-for-3 in terms of putting on great games this fall. In Week 3, the Browns and Jets turned a battle between two of the league’s worst teams from 2017 into a dramatic comeback win for a starved fanbase in Cleveland. In Week 4, Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff strung together a Big 12-style shootout that saw 500 passing yards and six aerial touchdowns ... in the first half alone. Even Week 2 between the Ravens and Bengals saw Baltimore claw back to within five points late in the fourth quarter before suffering a 34-23 loss.
It’s been an amazing start for a night on the NFL schedule that’s traditionally been an easily ignored blip on football’s national landscape. Is it sustainable?
The rest of the Thursday Night Football schedule isn’t especially inspiring
Some of the NFL’s worst teams headline the next four weeks of Thursday football. Next week brings a Colts-Patriots showdown with a couple interesting subplots: Josh McDaniels facing the team he spurned in its head coaching search, Julian Edelman’s return to the field after a four-game suspension, and the never-ending Deflategate revenge angle. But ultimately it’s a matchup between a pair of teams who got off to disappointing 1-2 starts.
In Week 6, the defending Super Bowl champions earn a prime slot slot. That’s good! The Eagles will face the Giants, who rank 27th in the league in scoring and field an offensive line that may send Eli Manning to injured reserve by then — he’s been sacked 12 times in three games this fall. That’s bad!
Another Week 8 game will break that streak of apparent blowouts, but the marquee matchup between the Eagles and Jaguars is a Sunday morning game from London that happens to be a TNF production. Four days later, Friday’s less-popular little brother will foist a showdown between Jon Gruden’s botched reclamation project and NFL starting quarterback C.J. Beathard onto an unsuspecting public.
Look at this grim-ass stretch of Thursday Night Football games coming up
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(These power rankings are based off SB Nation’s post-Week 3 rankings.)
So Thursdays are going to be brutal for a while. The good news is the NFL backloaded the TNF schedule with games featuring 2017 playoff teams. The bad news is many of those teams have backslid early in 2018. Panthers-Steelers in Week 10 should have an impact on the playoff race. Packers-Seahawks in Week 11 might not — especially with Seattle in the midst of a rebuild. Week 12’s Saints-Cowboys game looked like a banger during the offseason, but its bright lights have been dimmed as Dallas has sunk to the bottom of the league’s power rankings in a grim 1-2 start.
Jaguars-Titans (Week 13) could determine the AFC South champion, but might be borderline unwatchable even if it is — the two teams staged a 9-6 Florida rock fight in Week 3. The final Thursday Night Football game of the season that actually takes place on a Thursday is a Chargers-Chiefs game that should rival Vikings-Rams in terms of points scored and passing TDs, assuming Los Angeles’ entire starting lineup isn’t on injured reserve by that point.
There’s plenty of reason to complain about this year’s TNF slate, but in a year where Jets-Browns turned out to be eminently watchable, there’s reason to believe at least a few of these clunkers will turn out to be some of the season’s best games. Or, at the very least, an entirely pleasant way to spend a weeknight.
The NFL doesn’t need Thursday Night Football to be great — and it typically hasn’t been
Adding an extra night of football to America’s schedule has been a boon for the NFL. FOX paid the league $3.3 billion to broadcast the bulk of its Thursday Night Football games over the next five years. That’s $660 million per year — and in 2018, it comes out to $66 million per game.
That’s a huge outlay for a series of games that has typically underwhelmed. The average margin of victory in 2016’s Thursday night games was more than 11 points. In 2017, that gulf widened to more than 13 points. Ten of last year’s 18 contests were decided by double digits. And FOX still doled out the per-capita GDP of Bolivia to broadcast those games over a five-year span.
Expectations have typically been low for Thursday Night Football. The league’s expansion into a second weeknight always seemed more of a life raft between Monday to Sunday than any actual service to fans — and, as Richard Sherman pointed out, an active detriment (and “complete poopfest”) for players. But 2018 has been different, at least so far.
Baker Mayfield’s debut and the Browns’ subsequent rally to their first victory since December 2016 scored the NFL Network’s highest ratings since 2015. Part of that is thanks to the network’s exclusive over-the-air rights to the game, but the fact a Week 3 game between two bottom-feeding teams can pull nearly 9 million viewers to a premium cable channel is a major win for TNF. FOX, one game into its TNF tenure, is seeing gains as well, even despite some heavy competition.
Fox/NFL Net pulled a 10.7 overnight, up 8% from the comp Thursday night game last season.— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) September 28, 2018
Those numbers don’t count the multitudes that streamed the game, either:
Fox Sports: "Digital streaming across Amazon Prime Video, Twitch, NFL digital platforms, Fox Sports digital platforms, and Yahoo Sports produced an average minute audience of 816K" for last night's Thursday Night Football game.— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) September 28, 2018
With league ratings on the decline as viewers branch out to different avenues to soak up NFL content, it’ll remain to be seen whether TNF can continue to impress on the field and in viewership metrics. Playing matchmaker for 38-31 shootouts between playoff hopefuls is a good start. But if 2018 truly is Thursday Night Football’s blessed year, it’ll have to hope games like Broncos-Cardinals and Dolphins-Texans can follow the lead set by Jets-Browns and Vikings-Rams.