The NFL's flexible scheduling has been like manna from the heavens for the league and its Sunday Night Football package since its inception in 2006. It ensures the best late season matchups are aired in the league's most important broadcast window. Flex scheduling is a small part of the NFL's march towards world domination over the past several years, but it's a part nonetheless. In a world before flex scheduling, the league's primetime slate was a random assortment of hit or miss games with no predictability whatsoever of their attractiveness or ratings potential. Now, the NFL should be guaranteed meaningful games for primetime on Sundays and ratings gold.
But when you look at this week's flex choice for Sunday Night Football, it may be one of the most uninspired choices since its advent.
4-7 New York Giants at 3-8 Washington Redskins
Considering the nation just suffered along with the Redskins on Monday night, keping one eye shut while a shell of Robert Griffin III was pummelled by the 49ers, this isn't an exciting prospect. The Redskins have been dreadful this year and the only halfway interesting storyline surrounding the franchise is the turmoil in the Redskins locker room and whether or not the team is turning on Griffin, Mike Shanahan, or both. One week of that off-field drama is more than enough in the national football discourse.
On the other side, you have the Giants and their improbable comeback from an 0-6 start derailed by a home loss to the Cowboys last week. Eli Manning is the 31st rated passer in the NFL this season, lodged firmly near the bottom of the league between Chad Henne and Terrelle Pryor. On the bright side, you could argue the G-Men are only 2 games out of first place. But by that logic, the Redskins are only 3 games out and, brace yourself, "mathematically alive" for the playoffs still.
So why in the world would NBC and the NFL stick with such a dog game? Well, it looked slightly better when the decision was made before both teams lost last weekend. However, the truth is that there really weren't many legitimate options thanks to the Thanksgiving week. Here's the Sunday schedule for Week 13 and possible options for NBC and the NFL:
2-9 Jacksonville at 4-7 Cleveland
5-6 Tennessee at 7-4 Indianapolis
6-5 Chicago at 2-8-1 Minnesota
5-6 Miami at 5-6 New York Jets
7-4 Arizona at 6-5 Philadelphia
3-8 Tampa Bay at 8-3 Carolina
8-3 New England at 2-9 Houston
2-9 Atlanta at 4-7 Buffalo
5-6 St. Louis at 7-4 San Francisco
9-2 Denver at 9-2 Kansas City
7-4 Cincinnati at 5-6 San Diego
Just two matchups between teams with winning records. Two. The Broncos-Chiefs sequel is out of the equation, certainly protected by CBS for their national doubleheader window this week after the first game was flexed by the league to NBC two weeks ago. Then you have the Arizona-Philly matchup, which carries some intrigue with the Eagles leading the NFC East and the Cardinals in the thick of the NFC wild card hunt. After that…. there is nothing else. Maybe Cincy and San Diego, maybe St. Louis and San Francisco, or maybe even Miami and the Jets and the depressing "race" for the second AFC wild card slot.
Looking at it objectively, a matchup between the division leading Eagles and surprisingly strong Cardinals is clearly a superior matchup that would surely be left unprotected by Fox in their regional window.
While the matchup might be better on paper, the flex wasn't made because of one reason and one reason only – ratings.
Cardinals-Eagles simply isn't a big enough draw to replace Giants-Redskins because 2 NFC East teams are better than one for TV networks. For years NFL partners (especially Fox) have leaned on the ratings power of the NFC East and its huge television markets and national brands, even when the caliber of play leaves much to be desired. When the national TV schedule came out in April, NFC East teams accounted for 21 appearances including both divisional games getting primetime slots in Week 1.
While this would be the appropriate time to open up your window and scream obscenities about East Coast Bias, the proof is in the numbers. In 2011, the season ending Giants-Cowboys game produced the highest rating in the history of Sunday Night Football. In 2012, a similar Redskins-Cowboys was the highest rated primetime game in 15 years. And what just happens to be the highest rated game of the season thus far? Last week's meh tilt between the Giants and Cowboys.
When you put those numbers into this week's context, it's no surprise NBC and the NFL stuck with the status quo – a crappy game between two ratings monsters, especially when the alternative wasn't quite covered in glory. Were Panthers-Saints (the Week 14 flex) taking place this week, one would think the NFL would pull Redskins-Giants for such an important game between two excellent teams. But for Cardinals-Eagles? Or Bengals-Chargers? None of those matchups were going to make up the ratings difference that the Washington and New York media markets bring to the table.
Those of us outside the NFC East footprint may not be as excited about the decision as NBC's corporate suits, but the division remains the ratings bedrock of the league… even when the teams have a combined record of 7-15.