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Enter the Rams, part II: Thursday Night Football is a drag because division matchups are boring

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If the NFL can’t swing better than average football it could at least offer exotic average football

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“It marks the end of autumn.”

Most people agree Thursday football is no good. Some complain there is just too much football on television and it’s inconvenient to set aside yet another night of the busy week, or that the overexposure dilutes the product. Others say Thursday games themselves are more sloppy than others, because the players and coaches haven’t had enough time to prepare or gameplan. Related to that, Richard Sherman (among others) points out how it’s a danger to the players to play two games so close together because their bodies haven’t recovered, and the NFL undermines its own positions on player safety by scheduling weekly Thursday tilts.

These are all fair arguments, and yet this evening’s matchup is probably more compelling than some: You’ve got the Seattle Seahawks thirsty for a win to rinse out the cheese stuffed down their beaks in the 38-10 defeat by the Green Bay Packers last week, the opportunity for Seattle to clinch the NFC West with a win, the chance that every game might be a must-win for the Seahawks at this point in their chase for the NFC’s second seed and a first round bye, since they trail the Detroit Lions by a half-game—and then there are the Los Angeles Rams and the curious case of their curse over Seattle, or whether that factor will be undone after firing coach Jeff Fisher on short notice, and with the first flails for their rookie quarterback Jared Goff against the Legion of Boom.

It should actually be a good game. Plus the wild Color Rush uniforms: the long-anticipated debut of the Seahawks’ action green dips.

But, even with all those plenty reasons, if it wasn’t my job I probably wouldn’t watch it either.

I’ve hardly watched any Thursday Night Football games ever—although I’ve caught a few more this year than before, since simulcasting on Twitter made it easy to put the football on my phone to glance at while doing something else. But my reason, at least since the NFL started airing the games on national TV networks rather than its obscure cable soapbox, has little to do with the usual cases against TNF. Mainly, I think divisional matchups are boring.

Yes, every football game is different and therefore at least a little bit interesting. But some football games are decidedly more interesting than others.

Naturally, intradivision games are hard to avoid entirely. Since expanding to 32 teams in eight four-team divisions in 2002, a little more than one out of every three regular season games are division contests (37.5 percent; it was exactly half when divisions were five teams each). But the Thursday schedule has drawn disproportionally from the pool of divisional games: Of all 108 Thursday night games played—not counting traditional Thanksgiving-day games involving the Lions or Dallas Cowboys, or the NFL’s season-opener Kickoff series—since the introduction of TNF in 2006, 71 have been division affairs, or more than 66 percent of games.

Making matters worse, the ratio of divisional games is only going up. Since the league expanded to a season-long Thursday schedule in 2012, division matchups have made up 55 out of 71 games (77 percent). And after bringing the broadcast to network TV in 2014, 36 of a possible 46 Thursday games involved teams in the same division—that’s 84 percent! Honestly, it feels like roughly half of those games featured the Tennessee Titans against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Now, I can’t find any official comment outlining the thinking behind this trend toward primarily-divisional Thursday nights, but I’ll guess it’s the same motive that causes late-season scheduling to be heavily intradivisional. The belief is that division games weigh more toward the playoff chase than other games, because they doubly influence the division championship’s automatic bids. And because of these stakes and because division rivals are more familiar with one another’s tendencies and personnel, division games are expected to be closer and therefore better games—although Bill Barnwell showed in 2011 that is not the case.

That presumption of greater consequence and tighter matchups can backfire, as you can see with Seattle’s late-season run of NFC West opponents in 2016. Yes, the Seahawks can finalize their playoff bid against the Rams, which is a big deal for them—but it means nothing to eliminated L.A. And since Seattle is already above 99 percent likelihood to win the division that swing in significance is small. If they don’t get it done tonight, they get another chance next week, and in week 17.

Indeed, although division games can surely sometimes separate playoff teams from non-playoff teams, I would expect the overall quality of division games to be worse because the average division doesn’t send more than one team to the playoffs (definitively, somewhere between half and one quarter of divisions qualify at least two teams in a given year—but never more than half).

I expected divisional imbalance to mean the rate of Thursday night games featuring matchups of losing teams to be greater than the NFL average, and likewise the rate of games pairing two playoff teams to be lower. It turns out that’s not the case: In only 12 out of the 108 Thursday Night Football games were both participants eventual playoff qualifiers, but that’s virtually the same percentage as the typical league game over that time. Likewise, 27 percent of Thursday games involved two teams under .500, which is actually marginally less than the NFL average of 29 percent (Thursday’s matchups got slightly worse as the divisional games increased after 2014, but stayed within a percentage point of the league average—as always, database analysis provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com).

However, is that really what we want from primetime football? We’re still talking about just 12 games over almost 11 years that featured elite competition—and that’s after a run of good luck each of the last two weeks, as the league ended up with two premier matchups in Dallas-Minnesota (not that the Vikings are even in playoff position anymore) and Oakland-Kansas City. What’s more, even if divisional games aren’t necessarily worse than your average NFL game, they are certainly more common. The divisional stakes perhaps increase provincial interest in the matchups, as the rivalries matter to the local fan bases—by why should the generic national viewer make an appointment to see a tilt that occurs not just year after year but twice every season?

I realize the NFL doesn’t want to cannibalize from its more profitable brands, Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football, by steering coveted matchups to its Thursday property, but if it can’t swing better than average football it could at least try to give us exotic average football. If I were running the league I would demand that TNF, far from offering an assembly line of intradivisional slogs, increase the number of interconference collisions in its lineup—the sort you only see every four years like the Olympics or the World Cup. Matches like the Seahawks against the Miami Dolphins hardly seemed like a suitable season opener—it’s a weird oddity that would be much more intriguing as a Thursday night showcase (and a right delightful Color Rush exercise).

AFC-NFC games are already no-man’s-land for television rights as it is, the way the NFL splits its daytime Sunday deal among broadcasters according to conference. It seems like a perfect solution, but then again I’m not the guy raking in 30 million a year.

Anyway, as far as the game itself, I assume the Rams and Goff are in for a rude visit up the coast. As Mike Bar pointed out this morning, Goff is not ready for a primetime moment against a defense like Seattle’s. He doesn’t see the field well, he doesn’t move well, and his offensive line is trying to murder him—or maybe it was just trying to get his coach fired.

Goff has only played four games, but his DYAR is already more (less?) negative than Brock Osweiler (the worst qualifier by Football Outsiders’ measure) for the season.

None of that helps the Seahawks overcome Los Angeles’s pass rush, but Robert Quinn missing his third straight game with a concussion might. Hybrid safety Maurice Alexander, who provided nickel versatility and excellent run stopping in the first Rams matchup in week 2, is also out with a head injury.

Russell Wilson will be fine. Tom Brady has never thrown five interceptions in a game, but he has thrown four interceptions six times. Brady has played three times as long as Wilson and thrown 3.7 times as many passes, but he already has six times as many days with at least four interceptions. (That was Wilson’s first. Brady’s career is going well.) You know who else threw at least four interceptions in NFL games? Brett Favre (five times, including a fiver), Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner (five times, two fivers), Drew Brees (three times), Troy Aikman, and Peyton Manning (six times, including a six interception game) and those are just a selection of the ones who played while Brady’s been in the league. It happens. Literally, to the best of them.

Beside, Darrell Bevell will surely scheme up something different to put Wilson in advantageous spots. It is possible Bevell is coaching for his job, after all—not his job in Seattle, but a potential job with the Rams.

Either way, you don’t need an in-depth preview to know what’s coming. The team in white is going to want to test horn size and other important bits of anatomy. The game may be just smashing heads over and over for three straight hours. Fisher or not, Rams, as they say, gonna ram.