Josh Allen Bills Week 18 Dec 23, 2023; Inglewood, California, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) scrambles while Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack (52) pressuring him during the fourth quarter at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

While we still need to get through Week 17, Week 18 of the NFL season is beginning to come into focus. Each year, the NFL infamously announces matchups without start times for the final week of the season and assigns the start times once Week 17 clarifies the league’s playoff scenarios.

Beginning with the 2021 season, the Week 18 schedule consists of a pair of games on Saturday (airing on ESPN networks), a full slate of Sunday afternoon games airing across CBS and Fox, and a Sunday Night Football season-ender in primetime on NBC. This ensures that the NFL and its TV partners have meaningful games airing on meaningful timeslots to close out the season and we’re not left with absolute duds in premium windows.

This year, we’re left with even more uncertainty than usual going into Week 17, the penultimate week of the 2023 season. Just six teams (Dolphins, Ravens, Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, 49ers) have clinched playoff berths, and only two division titles have been locked up (by the Lions and 49ers). 18 teams are still in the playoff hunt (though that number will drop this coming weekend), including the six-win Chicago Bears.

Even though we’re still a week out, we can still do a pretty decent job determining which games will be airing in the afternoon Sunday and which will be getting better timeslots. Here are our predictions, sorted by division.

Jets vs Patriots is the one Week 18 game featuring two teams already eliminated from the playoff slate. It’ll definitely be airing on Sunday afternoon.

Bills vs Dolphins is the game most likely to air in primetime, depending on Week 17 results. A Bills win over the Patriots and a Dolphins loss to the Ravens turn this game into a head-to-head battle for the AFC East title. With each of those games airing at 1 p.m. ET this Sunday on CBS, the NFL might even make that announcement on the CBS postgame show if the results fall into place the right way.

Browns vs Bengals and Ravens vs Steelers can be grouped together because their importance is dependent on Week 17 results. The Browns can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Jets on Thursday. The Ravens can clinch the AFC North and the AFC’s top seed with a win over the Dolphins on Sunday. If both of those results happen, these two games only matter for potential playoff berths for the Bengals and Steelers. But if the Browns win and the Ravens lose in Week 17, Cleveland could incredibly win the division with another win and a Ravens loss. Given how tightly tied these results are, these AFC North games could make for an interesting Saturday doubleheader or both games airing at once on Sunday.

Jaguars vs Titans and Texans vs Colts follow a similar pattern. The Titans are out of the playoff race, while the Jaguars, Texans, and Colts are all tied at 8-7. The tiebreakers are looking pretty good for Jacksonville, but the prospect of a three-way tie in the AFC South going into Week 18 makes these two games a perfect possibility for the Saturday doubleheader or a simultaneous Sunday afternoon window. If the Jags unexpectedly stumble against the Panthers in Week 17, Texans-Colts could even get the SNF window.

Chiefs vs Chargers will be banished to Sunday afternoon if the Chiefs beat the Bengals to clinch the AFC West in Week 17. If they don’t, and the Raiders beat the Colts, it and Raiders vs Broncos will take on a whole lot more meaning. They’d still probably both take place simultaneously on Sunday afternoon.

Cowboys vs Commanders and Eagles vs Giants take on meaning because of the teams involved. But hey, the division is still up for grabs, making these two games ideal to air on Sunday afternoon at the same time.

Bears vs Packers and Vikings vs Lions are probably both airing on Sunday. While the Lions have clinched the division, the other three teams are all mathematically alive for the playoffs, but on the outside looking in. Week 17 results could slam the door on two of those teams, leaving the third as a possible pick for the Saturday doubleheader.

Buccaneers vs Panthers is probably airing on Sunday afternoon because Carolina is awful and just trying to play spoiler. Falcons vs Saints could have more meaning for a playoff spot depending on Week 17 results, putting in it position for a better timeslot. Just like in the AFC South, there’s a possibility for a three-way tie going into Week 18, which would cause plenty of scheduling headaches.

49ers vs Rams and Seahawks vs Cardinals remind me a lot of the NFC North games in Week 18. One team has clinched, one team is on the beach (or, in the Bears case above, virtually on the beach), and two teams are fighting for playoff spots. The Seattle-Arizona game looks like it will be a late Sunday afternoon game, while 49ers vs Rams could air on Saturday, late Sunday, or in primetime Sunday depending on how Week 17 results go.

While it’s fun and exciting to have so many teams in the hunt late, it sure does make the NFL and its media partners wait and see.

FINAL PREDICTIONS
Saturday:
Colts vs Texans, 49ers vs Rams
Sunday night: Dolphins vs Bills

About Joe Lucia

I hate your favorite team. I also sort of hate most of my favorite teams.