When it comes to prime-time NFL games, the broadcast networks get dealt a better hand than ESPN. As the league’s premier package, Sunday Night Football gets better matchups than Monday Night Football. Now that’s been extended to CBS’s Thursday Night Football as well early in the season.

But we’ve always basically concluded that said trend was the result of the fact the NFL might prefer to gets its premier teams and matchups on network television, rather than cable.

Now, though, the possibility has been raised that the NFL — frustrated by coverage related to the Ray Rice scandal and heavy criticism of commissioner Roger Goodell from some of the network’s biggest names — could retaliate by giving ESPN an extra-bad schedule in 2015.

This tweet from John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal got us thinking:

When we ranked all of the nationally-televised games before this season, six of the top seven matchups belonged to NBC. The only ESPN game in the top 10 was a Saints-Bears matchup slated for Week 15. And with the Saints at 1-3, that matchup isn’t looking very promising.

This year, ESPN is stuck with ugly matchups like Steelers-Titans in Week 11, Dolphins-Jets in Week 13 and Redskins-Cowboys in Week 8. Their piece of the primetime pie has already been made smaller by CBS’s new presence on Thursday nights and the lack of flex scheduling means November and December games are something of a crapshoot. It seems the league is sending plenty of fun intra-divisional matchups to Thursday, which inevitably waters down ESPN’s slate.

In the wake of one NFL scandal after another, ESPN has been more critical of the league than ever before. Multiple on-air personalities have called for Roger Goodell’s resignation. Outside the Lines has offered damning reports in recent weeks, first about the Ravens handling of Ray Rice and then Jovan Belcher and CTE. The network has been nowhere close to defending the shield.

Could the NFL send a message by giving ESPN Jaguars-Titans next October? What about Bucs-Raiders? Let’s not forget that the NFL has exerted their influence over ESPN on multiple occasions before. While the NFL can’t necessarily stop Outside the Lines from doing their investigative work or Keith Olbermann from delivering his rants, they can make their displeasure over the negative coverage known in other ways.

Given the NFL’s power over the schedule and attitude towards negative publicity, they could give ESPN even less attractive games next season, but that would also mean hurting the ratings for their own product.

It’s hard to imagine ESPN’s sked becoming much worse without it becoming plainly obvious that the league is doing it on purpose and taking to much self-inflicted damage. Not to put the thought past the NFL, but we’ll believe it when we see it.

About Brad Gagnon

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. Based in Toronto, he's worked as a national NFL blog editor at theScore.com, a producer and writer at theScore Television Network and a host, reporter and play-by-play voice at Rogers TV. His work has also appeared at CBSSports.com, Deadspin, FoxSports.com, The Guardian, The Hockey News and elsewhere at Comeback Media, but his day gig has him covering the NFL nationally for Bleacher Report.