Before we begin let’s start by saying this is complete guesswork based off of some things we know, some things that have been inferred and some noises being made on the rumour mill.
As we saw over Christmas, people are prepared to go to considerable lengths to create some fake news. We won’t be rendering any pretend imagery and league promotional materials, just predicting the 2018 London Games slate using our best but limited outsider knowledge.
Now we already know some things for certain. The Jaguars will play at least one game in London this year, their annual home game forfeited in Jacksonville. And we also pretty much know the LA Rams won’t be coming back to the U.K. for a third year in a row because they will play the Kansas City Chiefs in Mexico next season and we can be pretty sure they won’t play two overseas games on two separate continents.
We also know that one of the NFL rules pertains that any team in a temporary home stadium may be selected to give up one home game to play overseas. We know that includes the Rams and LA Chargers. And the Oakland Raiders also fall into this category, having been unhappy with their current stadium situation and then granted permission to relocate to Las Vegas.
We know that Jaguars owner Shahid Kahn spoke with Vernon Kay on Sky Sports on the sideline before the game between Baltimore and Jacksonville and mentioned a desire to see if back to back games could work next season. So that feasibility with Jaguars opponents in 2018 will have been investigated.
We know that Mark Waller, VP of NFL International, has indicated they are happy with four games at the moment. They don’t feel they need to keep going to five or six to prove anything. It sounds like were they to find a fifth game to send to Europe then it would probably go to Germany, although to do this in the same year as moving into the new Tottenham stadium makes this less likely logistically.
We also know Alistair Kirkwood has mentioned a couple of specific things over the past year. Just after the 2017 games were announced to a slightly underwhelming reaction, Kirkwood revealed, on the ever excellent Nat Coombs Show on TalkSport 2, that he already knew one 2018 matchup and that it was a marquee one, he was pleased with it. Given how big NFLUK want to go with their first game at the new Tottenham stadium I’d imagine this was already pencilled in to be played there to kick off their new venue. Kirkwood also suggested, during the Browns and Vikings week in London, that a priority for him was bringing over the remaining franchises who have not as yet played in the U.K.
And then there’s the rumours. Rumours that the league was trying to persuade a reluctant Patriots to play in London, having just played in Mexico last year. Rumours that the 49ers will do an International Series game if they can get out of being a Hard Knocks candidate. Rumours that it’s either the Redskins or the Eagles against the Jaguars and that the Seahawks will play the Raiders in London.
Now we can take a couple of the above points and put them together to make a very plausible stab at one of the London games, one many people seem to agree on: Eagles at Jaguars. This would tick another team off the list of those yet to play in London, it also gives NFLUK another chance to worship at the alter of JayTrain. We know what an anti-climax Ajayi’s game was for the Dolphins this season after a week of hype and emojis, getting him back next year seems like a no-brainer. The Eagles were also one of the best teams in the league this year so there would be a lot of interest in seeing two playoff teams going up against each other. It might even end up being a Super Bowl rematch, who knows?!
Now, do we really expect the Jaguars to give up two home games, 25% of their home slate to take to London? I’d say its very unlikely and would be a real slap in the face to the locals in Florida after such a successful 2017 season. If they do then we may as well start packing up the relocation vans and airplanes. So we look to their away schedule to see if there’s a team there that would be willing to give up a home game. Giants and Cowboys? Nope. Dolphins a third year in a row? Unlikely. The Bills, in a 2015 Wembley rematch? Maybe. Chiefs? They’re playing already in Mexico apparently. Divisional opponents won’t go anywhere near the idea of giving up a home game, it would be suicidal. One of the problems here is that the Jaguars now have a perceived, if not real, home advantage in the U.K.. What serious team is going to give up a home game and actually play a seven home, nine away game schedule? Beyond the Bills there’s no other option and that’s why it’s unlikely to happen in 2018 unless there’s a big announcement shock.
Having played abroad the past two years (and three of the last four), the Raiders look to be a likely candidate to swap Mexico for London. The L.A. Chargers would also appear an option, residing in a temporary small soccer stadium that is often filled with more visiting than home team fans. Although many are expecting it, it would be a surprise if both were to play a home game in London because that would mean two 6pm London time kick offs now that the league rectified the absurd situation of the Rams kicking off at 6am L.A. time at Twickenham in 2016. NFL International like the afternoon kick offs because the U.K. fans tend to prefer it and the Asian television markets become viable. There’s a chance that the Raiders and the Chargers could play each other in London but then which one gives up their home game? The other Raiders home game option would appear to be the Seahawks, another team yet to play abroad, but noises over the years suggest they’re the most reluctant team out there to make the long trip. They may decide that this is the best opportunity, playing against another West Coast team having to make the same journey.
The Chargers could probably do with the ticket revenue and compensation that comes with playing in London but might the NFL feel that what they really need is to establish a fan base and stay in Los Angeles? There was also report last week that the Raiders had agreed to give up a home game in 2018. It could be the Chargers here as the away team but let’s go with the Seahawks, taking their medicine and agreeing to play at the Raiders in London, making an ever growing U.K. Seattle fanbase very happy.
The league will want the first American football game played at the new Tottenham stadium to be a big one. One involving established fan bases in the U.K.. One with star power. One that in autumn 2016 looked like it would involve two competitive franchises. The Seahawks v Raiders could fit the bill here but lets look at the other franchises who could give up a home game with big fanbases in the U.K. It’s unlikely to be Miami again and most other well supported teams have stadium leases or owners you’d imagine unwilling to sacrifice a home game. Until we get to Dan Snyder who wants a new stadium, who’s lease seems to allow it if Washington Post articles from 2015 are to be believed, and who is close to a big champion of international expansion, Jerry Jones.
No one moves the needle internationally more, despite injury this season, than Odell Beckham jr. Surely the London office would love to have him back over, fully fit this time, playing on the fast Field Turf at Tottenham. It would be a big statement from the league with NFL franchise royalty and NFC East rivals squaring off against each other. A Kirk Cousin-less Redskins may hold less appeal but the matchup would still be a huge win for the U.K. in wider terms. The other option here would be the same placed Green Bay Packers at the Redskins but Kirkwood could not have known about that fixture last year so let’s put Giants at Redskins down as the first game at the new [enter soulless corporate sponsor] White Hart Lane, most likely in the October international football window.
And the fourth game. It’s felt for a little while that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be due another home game forfeit to bring to London. They first did it in 2009 and then at short notice post CBA again in 2011. There’s only really a limited number of viable teams that will give up home games and while Miami have shown such willingness recently it’s probably the turn of the other Florida team to step up, one that still has a decent U.K. fanbase despite the recent lack of success. We could go Panthers here, another team still to tick off, but with the franchise in flux and up for sale, is it really likely the NFL will land an international trip onto their plate? There’s also been talk of the Titans giving up a home game but again the ownership issues makes this more complicated. So let’s go with Tampa at home. The Eagles and Redskins are on their slate but are already coming over in our prediction. The Browns were here this season. The Steelers could be a good bet here, but with plenty of rumours around the San Francisco 49ers let’s say they’ve agreed to be the away team, bringing over Jimmy G and one of the hottest offseason teams in 2018.
So there it is, there’s our slate. Four games, some big games and two new teams. Probably completely Blair Walsh wide of the mark but as good of a guess from the information we know.
Eagles at Jaguars – Week 3, 23rd September. Wembley
Giants at Redskins – Week 5, 7th October. Tottenham
49ers at Buccaneers – Week 9, 4th November. Wembley
Seahawks at Raiders – Week 10, 11th November. Tottenham
We’ll find out tomorrow if it’s completely wrong but it was fun trying to guess…