The NFL leaves the Sunday Night Football slot in Week 17 open every season, and flexes the most relevant game of the week into the window. With Week 17 typically being nothing but divisional matchups, this sometimes results in a winner take all game for a division title, or even in a win or go home game for a playoff spot.
But the expansion of the playoffs this season hasn’t resulted in a glut of potentially meaningful games in Week 17. Only nine AFC teams are still in contention for the seven playoff spots as Week 15 comes to a close. In the NFC, that number is 12, but includes the four sub-.500 NFC East teams fighting for the division title. Five teams are fighting for the final three playoff spots outside of that division.
So, which game will we see in primetime in two Sundays? Unfortunately, the pickings are rather slim, because there really aren’t many games between two teams still in contention.
Jets vs Patriots
Vikings vs Lions
Raiders vs Broncos
Jets-Patriots is the one Week 17 game where both teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention, so we’re not going to be seeing that one in primetime. Vikings-Lions and Raiders-Broncos will only be relevant to the playoff picture if results in both Week 16 and 17 go the way of the Vikings and Raiders – each team is two games back of the final playoff spot in their respective conference.
This Only Matters To One Of Us
Ravens vs Bengals
Jaguars vs Colts
Chargers vs Chiefs
Falcons vs Bucs
Saints vs Panthers
Titans vs Texans
Seahawks vs 49ers
These games feature a bunch of playoff contenders taking on teams far from contention. And while that’s all well and good, if any of these games are chosen, they could being largely meaningless by the time we get into primetime. Furthermore, the results of these games are relevant to one another. Say for instance, Titans-Texans is chosen as the primetime game. If the Colts were to lose earlier in the day, the result of the Titans game wouldn’t matter at all. That would not be an ideal situation for a Sunday Night Football game specifically flexed into this window. Besides, the NFL likes to have games like that all taking place at the same time to create a sense of chaos (which is good!).
So, The NFC East…
Cowboys vs Giants
Washington vs Eagles
Washington leads the division by a game over Dallas and New York, and a game and a half over Philadelphia. NBC and the NFL really have to be hoping that the division takes the decision out of their hands and Washington clinches the division in Week 16, because otherwise, the league could be in a situation where both of these games are unfortunately relevant. Because of how tight the NFC East is between these four teams, I’d think the NFL would want to have these two games going at the same time – unless Washington-Philly becomes a winner take all game for the division title, which would happen if Washington loses to Carolina in Week 16, Philly beats Dallas, and the Giants lose to the Ravens. But even if that happened, NBC would be looking at a game between a 6-9 team and a 5-9-1 team for all the marbles. Yikes.
Anything To Play For?
The Bills have already clinched the AFC East, so they’d just be playing for seeding against the Dolphins. Miami is still in the playoff picture, and currently holds their playoff future in their own hands, but their situation could go either direction in Week 16. Furthermore, their playoff future is somewhat tied to that of the Ravens, and the league probably wouldn’t feel great about having one team play earlier than the other. As for Steelers-Browns, there’s a chance this could be a game for the AFC North crown – if it is, then this will 100% be the game chosen. If not, and it’s just a game between two playoff teams fighting for seeding (or Cleveland fighting for their playoff lives), the chance of it getting picked is far less. As for Packers-Bears, maybe the Packers are still fighting for the top seed, and maybe the Bears are still fighting for a playoff spot. Or maybe both of these questions were answered in Week 16, and this is merely a rivalry game without much on the line.
The Battle For Seeding
These two NFC West teams currently occupy two of the three NFC Wild Card spots, and both could clinch spots in Week 16. If that happens, we’ll be talking about seeding with this game. If not, and the playoffs are still up for grabs, this could be of plenty of interest to a national audience. But again – so much of the Cardinals’ playoff future depends on the results of the Bears and Vikings. Would the NFL really want those teams playing potentially meaningful games hours before the Cardinals play their game?
You really can see why the NFL waits so long to make their choice, can’t you? There are several potentially interesting games on the docket, but those games could be completely meaningless depending on results in Week 16. We’re not going to get a decision this week (and I wouldn’t be shocked if the announcement came during Week 16’s Titans-Packers game on SNF, thanks to the Week 16 MNF matchup between the Bills and Patriots having little on the line), but if I had to make the call right now, I’d probably end up going with Washington-Eagles or Steelers-Browns.
However, it’s not a guarantee that there will be a flex. Back in 2017, with there being several playoff scenarios similar to what we’re seeing this year, the NFL opted to move five games into the late afternoon window and leave the Sunday Night Football slot empty. This led to a frantic 4 PM ET window, and if there are several games with some meaning in two Sundays, it wouldn’t shock me at all if the league decided to give NBC the week off and banked hard on more chaos in the late afternoon.