FILE- In this Sept. 18, 2014, file photo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith watches the Atlanta Falcons kick an extra point during the second half of an NFL football game in Atlanta. The Bucs lost 56-14. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
David Goldman, File
December 05, 2014

Off-the-field problems haven't dented the NFL's popularity and, it turns out, fewer competitive games isn't turning too many fans away, either.

Barely noticed beneath the domestic violence, player health and other troubles plaguing the league this year has been a significant decline in nail-biter games and an increase in blowouts.

So far this season, according to STATS, the number of games decided by one score or less (8 points) are down by 18 percent from last season and 20 percent from 2012. Meanwhile, blowouts (20 points or more) are on the rise: There have been 32 percent more than last year and 12 percent over the 2012 number. There have been only nine overtime games so far this year, compared to 11 at this point last season and 17 in 2012.

And yet TV ratings remain fairly steady. Nielsen says national games over cable and broadcast have averaged 16.7 million viewers so far this year, down from 17.2 million last year. That's less than a 3 percent decrease, and not enough of a drop to prevent Sunday Night Football from regularly being the week's most-watched show.

Credit fantasy football and gambling for part of that - there's always something to be rooting for, even if the games themselves aren't that good.

''These two pillars, when combined with massive fan interest from hard core fans and a steady engagement from casual fans, blunts the downside associated with less compelling competition,'' said David Carter, executive director of the Marshall Sports Business Institute at Southern California.

To be sure, the league that prides itself on parity has good races going in every division as December hits, and has produced its fair share of good games as well.

Last week, there were three one-point affairs, including San Diego's comeback from 10 points down late for a 34-33 victory over Baltimore. Also, Green Bay's 26-21 win over New England in the so-called Game of the Year last week was compelling and came down to the final minutes.

The Thanksgiving Day games? All turkeys.

One of the best lineups for Thanksgiving in recent memory - Chicago at Detroit, Philly at Dallas and Seattle at San Francisco - had playoff implications for all teams involved. The combined score of the three games: 86-30. None were decided by fewer than 16 points.

''It was unfortunate, because nobody was saying (anything bad) about those games on Wednesday,'' said Jay Kornegay, who runs the LVH sportsbook. ''It looked like a pretty strong lineup.''

And, to tell by the TV ratings, it was. All three games pulled better ratings than the games in their time slot the year before.

Thursday-night games in general have been bad. Unpopular among players who detest the short work week and the ravages it can cause to their bodies, the average score of those games this season has been 33-15. Only three have been decided by a touchdown or less while five have produced margins of 20 or more.

The Sunday-night games touted as the week's marquee matchups have produced a steady stream of blowouts, as well. Since Week 2, only one game has been decided by fewer than 10 points. Sunday Night Football, however, regularly wins its time slot.

With America spending upward of $11 billion a year on fantasy football, it's no surprise viewership still goes through the roof. The way some fantasy owners see it, a lopsided game is simply a chance for the losing quarterback to rack up some come-from-behind passing yardage and the winning running back grind out some fantasy points, as well.

The NFL has emphasized the in-stadium experience, ramping up internet connections so fans can keep track of other games while enjoying the one they're attending. At the midpoint of the season, attendance was on pace to better last year's per-game average of 68,867 (a five-year high), with 20 of the 32 teams reporting increases, according to STATS.

And in Vegas - as Al Michaels likes to subtly remind viewers in these runaway Sunday night games he's calling - no game is over, `til it's ''over,'' as in, until it surpasses the number the books set for total points.

In keeping with the season's trend, this week's lineup features four games with double-digit spreads: New Orleans -10 over Carolina; Detroit -10 over Tampa Bay; Denver -10 over Buffalo and Green Bay -12 1/2 over Atlanta.

Kornegay, however, doesn't flinch at an abundance of lopsided matchups. His job is to set a line that will come close to matching the final margin, with the ultimate goal of getting equal action on both sides. If he sets the right spread - and he says Vegas books are having a very good football season so far - then all these games will keep viewers interested to the end, even if the games are blowouts.

''Yeah, we've seen a few more blowouts and overs due to some of the Thursday night mismatches, along with Sunday nights,'' Kornegay said. ''But I don't think there's any reason to panic.''

You May Like