In today's "any given Sunday" NFL, the thinking goes, any team can win — or lose — any game. What about any given Thursday? Turns out those matchups are the closest thing to a lock there is.
Heading into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' midweek game at the Minnesota Vikings, home teams are 5-1 on Thursday nights this season, an .833 winning percentage; the only loss was by the struggling Carolina Panthers against the visiting Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Home teams are 12-3 (.800) on Thursdays over the past two years (discarding Week 1).
Those records are far better than the .602 winning percentage NFL home teams have enjoyed in all other games this season and the .571 they have since the start of the 2011 season, according to STATS LLC. Clearly, avoiding the road helps on the short weeks players say are hardest on their bodies — and that the league says will remain a staple of the schedule.
Being forced to play on a Thursday, instead of the usual Sunday, makes every club "miserable," according to Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Max Starks, a nine-year veteran.
"It's who is less miserable than the other?" Starks said. "And the advantage typically tips to the team that doesn't have to travel."
His Steelers lost 26-23 at the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 11, a Thursday, when four key players for Pittsburgh got hurt: running backs Ike Redman (right ankle) and Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles tendon), offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey (right leg) and Marcus Gilbert (right ankle).
Starks thinks that rash of injuries was not a coincidence. He has company.
Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson described the quick turnaround this way: "Go get in a car accident and then try to play two days later. That's how it feels."
He suggested allowing teams to keep all 53 players on the roster active for Thursdays, instead of trimming to 46, the way they do for all games now. That hasn't been discussed, though, the NFL says.
Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk thinks a study should be done to see if there is "a fatigue factor" that affects players who get less rest between games.
There also might be a longer-term effect: Until last Sunday, when Pittsburgh and Tennessee both won coming off their Oct. 11 meeting, Thursday teams went only 2-6 this season — and 11-15 over the past two seasons, excluding Week 1 — in their subsequent game, STATS LLC said.
When Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was asked whether playing on Thursday puts players at a higher risk of injury, he smiled broadly before replying: "Touchy area there, my friend. Touchy area."
"It's tough on all the players, especially later in the year, as the body takes longer to recover, even when you're a younger guy. The way our bodies are programmed, we're still in recovery mode on Thursday," said 37-year-old linebacker London Fletcher, whose Washington Redskins will play at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.
"Obviously, there's a health-and-safety issue and a concern about it. ... Your body is not recovered for that, whether it's the normal aches and pains or having a collision. It just takes your body a while. It's definitely an issue in terms of health and safety," Fletcher said, before adding with a chuckle, "but I don't know that the league is greatly concerned about that, as much as they're concerned about growing the game."
While Thanksgiving action has been an NFL tradition for decades, the NFL expanded to a nearly full-season slate of Thursdays for the first time in 2012, scheduling games every Thursday from Week 2 to Week 15. It's a way to bolster the NFL Network by putting those games on its air and to take advantage of the sport's popularity.
"The shorter week is harder for the players. They'll tell you that, I'm sure," Commissioner Roger Goodell said at a "town hall" appearance with fans this week, when he also said he doesn't expect other days of the week will be added, for fear of reaching "saturation." ''But they also like the longer week after. Ten days afterward, not so bad. And I hear that from players all the time."
Last season, only eight Thursdays were used for regular-season games. A league spokesman said the plan for the foreseeable future is to stick to the higher volume added this season.
Which concerns some.
"That is a problem with Thursday games: The short turnaround and the number of practices condensed into a shorter time can lead to more fatigue and more injuries," said Dr. Gerard Varlotta of the NYU Medical Center's Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitative Medicine and someone who works for several agents, regularly examining players.
Coaches modify work schedules ahead of Thursday games, knowing it's important to ease up from a physical standpoint. The Bucs held meetings Monday, did a walkthrough instead of a normal practice Tuesday and were traveling to Minnesota on Wednesday.
There's less time for game-planning, too, of course.
"There might be all kinds of great ideas and thoughts and things you might want to do to attack an opponent and shore up some of your weaknesses, but with the short week, there has to be some carry-over, there has to be some concepts that are core ideas that our guys can grasp and be able to handle without actually practicing them," Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. "It really puts a premium on the film study and the walkthroughs."
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen called being at home on a Thursday "a huge advantage."
"I mean, I couldn't imagine getting on a plane (Wednesday), just from the standpoint of bumps and bruises, swelling on airplanes," Allen said.
NFL rules state teams playing Thursdays need to either have been at home the Sunday before or play a 1 p.m. road game.
Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, said the league received feedback from players saying they're OK with playing one Thursday game a season.
And the players the AP spoke to were hardly against Thursday games as a group.
Various players, such as New York Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson, do not think there is a greater chance of injury on short weeks.
As Goodell pointed out, players do look forward to getting the longer break between games that comes after playing on a Thursday, although the win-loss records don't seem to show that there's an advantage the following week. Several members of the Seahawks, for example, headed home — some even all the way to the East Coast — after their Thursday night loss against the San Francisco 49ers last week.
Players also look forward to the extra exposure that comes with one-game-at-a-time Thursday slots, instead of crowded Sundays.
And some are resigned to the idea that Thursday games are not going away, so there's not much point in complaining.
"Who's to say what's the right amount of time? We assume that it's a week, but I don't think there's any clinical evidence to back up that we should play a game with six days or seven days of rest in between. That's just always the way it's been done," Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. "The more fatigue, the more you wear the body down, you do greaten the chances of injury. But it's a physical game we play, anyway, so injuries are going to be a part of it."
AP Sports Writers Will Graves, Dave Campbell, Teresa Walker, Dave Ginsburg, Tim Booth, Fred Goodall and Janie McCauley, AP National Writer Nancy Armour and AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this report.