Each year when the NFL schedule is released, there is a noticeable empty spot in the schedule in Week 17. For the final week of the season, the NFL chooses the most appealing, most relevant game on the schedule, and flexes it into primetime on Sunday Night Football.
Typically, we can tell which games are the favorites to be flexed into that primetime window a couple of weeks before Week 17. As we enter Week 15, that is once again the case. A handful of games stand out from the rest of the pack as the favorite for primetime, but which game will end up getting the nod?
Looking at the schedule, there are four games that could be relevant to both teams come Week 17: Bears-Vikings, Steelers-Ravens, Titans-Texans, and 49ers-Seahawks.
Of the four, Bears-Vikings is probably the least likely game to be selected. Chicago is still alive in the NFC playoff race (and the NFC North race), but needs plenty of help. The Bears are two games back of the Vikings for the second NFC Wild Card spot, and three back of the Packers for the NFC North title. If the Bears beat the Packers and Chiefs over the next two weeks, and the Vikings lose to the Chargers in Week 15 and beat Green Bay in Week 16, we could be looking at a potential trio of teams finishing at 10-6 in the NFC North. But if the Packers beat the Lions earlier in Week 17, the Bears-Vikings matchup would be a battle for a Wild Card slot (or even nothing at all, based on what happens with the 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams over the final three weeks of the season), and the series of events that would make Bears-Vikings relevant is a longshot.
Steelers-Ravens is a matchup on paper that makes all the sense in the world for primetime, given the long-standing rivalry between the two teams. But it’s an unlikely choice for one main reason: it could only matter to the Steelers. Baltimore has already clinched a playoff berth, can clinch the AFC North with just one win (or one Steelers lost) over the rest of the season, and can clinch both a first-round bye and the AFC’s #1 overall seed as soon as Week 15. If Baltimore does lock up that top seed in Week 15 or 16, they’ll likely bench a number of their starters (including MVP front runner Lamar Jackson) for the Week 17 Steelers matchup. I can’t imagine that NBC would be too thrilled with Robert Griffin III vs Devlin Hodges in primetime.
The two most likely matchups for Week 17 on SNF are Titans-Texans (yes, the AFC South for the second year in a row) and 49ers-Seahawks. The Titans and Texans play twice in the final three weeks of the season, and are tied at the top of the division with identical 8-5 records (though the Texans have the tiebreaker edge right now based on divisional record). The Titans also have the same record as the Steelers, the AFC’s current #6 seed, and lose out on the tiebreaker to them based on conference record. There’s a chance this game could be meaningless – in Week 16, the Titans play the Saints, while the Texans play the Bucs – but it’s looking like a strong option, especially if each team goes 1-1 heading into Week 17. One game for all the marbles? Hell yeah.
Finally, we come to 49ers-Seahawks, a quite sexy matchup between two of the best teams in the NFC. Seattle is one of two teams to beat San Francisco this season, but a shock pounding by the Rams this past Sunday night has put them a game back in the NFC West with three to play. The Seahawks have two much easier games prior to the Week 17 showdown, playing the rudderless Panthers and Cardinals, while the Niners host a Falcons team that hasn’t looked awful over the last month and a Rams team fighting for its playoff life. It’s not hard to imagine these two rolling into Week 17 with 12-3 records and a first-round bye on the line – with the loser getting dumped on the road a week later to either Dallas or Philly.
There are still a lot of moving parts over the next two weeks that will determine the Week 17 primetime game. But at least the NFL has a couple of incredible enticing options this year, even if we’re just playing for seeding.