Based on the playoff situation, the NFL will pick the game with the biggest implications to flex to Sunday Night Football on the final night of the regular season. Which game is most likely to receive that billing? A power ranking of each game's chances.
Football season is once again upon us: 32 teams, 17 weeks, 256 regular-season games.
Week 1 looks a little different this year, with the Packers and Bears opening the NFL’s 100th season in the Thursday night kickoff game, and the defending champion Patriots getting bumped to Sunday Night Football for their banner unveiling against the Steelers.
Week 17 will hopefully look the same as it normally does. We are now a full year removed from New Year’s Eve 2017, when the NFL canceled one of the marquee games of the whole season, giving Al and Cris the night off rather than flex Game 256 into primetime on NBC.
As we prepare for Week 1—studying the lines while making our first survivor pool selections, scouring supermarkets for fall beers, etc.—I will once again look a little too far ahead by power rankings all 16 games in Week 17 in order of how likely they are to be flexed to Sunday Night Football.
Last year the Colts and Titans had the honor of squaring off in Game 256, with both teams entering with a record of 9-6 and the winner earning the AFC’s No. 6 seed (I ranked that game 14th out of 16 games to be flexed to SNF last year). The matchup had an extra dose of drama because of a third outcome—a tie on Sunday Night Football would have given the 9-6-1 Steelers a playoff spot! A delightfully moot point now, but I swear many of us were enthralled by it at the time. Alas, the Blaine Gabbert-led Titans fell short as Andrew Luck won the final regular-season game of his career (we think).
One of the things that we love most about the promise of a new season: As much as we think we know, we never quite know. But one thing I do know is that on Dec. 29 I’ll be glued to my TV, ready to watch somebody punch a ticket to the postseason ... as long as they don’t cancel the game again. That would have been rough had it not been New Year’s Eve.
16. Raiders at Broncos
Of all the games on this list, Raiders-Broncos is the only one that I think clearly pits the two worst teams in a division against each other. Things would have to go truly sideways for this game to take place with the AFC West title on the line. And while I can’t rule out the possibility that one of these teams makes a mildly surprising bid for a playoff spot, the thought of both remaining alive into Week 17 just feels too farfetched.
15. Dolphins at Patriots
I’m breaking from precedent here, as the non-Patriots AFC East game is typically one of the easiest to rule out early. But this year the Dolphins appear to be more concerned about being featured in primetime during the 2020 draft. If the Patriots are in a win-and-in situation, of course NBC and the NFL would like to show it. But against a 3-12 Dolphins team long past the point of caring? That could be an ugly game, and there should be more appealing choices available.
14. Browns at Bengals
Here’s a game where I think the location has a major impact. Primetime games with major playoff ramifications should embrace the drama and theater, and allow viewers to feel the weight of the game through the lens of the home fans. The Browns are America’s New Team, and I think a lot of people would love to see them return to the playoffs. (I acknowledge that sports fans can never collectively agree on anything, and there are plenty of people who would be happy to see them get stomped this year.) It would be a ton of fun to watch this game in Cleveland and see the diehard Browns fans experience a potential playoff-clinching win in real-time. But I’m imagining them panning the crowd in Cincinnati and it just doesn’t have the same amount of juice. Not to mention that the Bengals are a clear step below their three AFC North counterparts. Unlike my No. 14 pick last year, I don’t see this one happening.
13. Redskins at Cowboys
I assume at this point NBC has some sort of permanent office space within JerryWorld (they will already be there in Weeks 7 and 10) and surely the network would love to come back for this game.
The firstthreeyears of this column, I acknowledged a strong NFC East bias and factored it into my rankings. But since the Cowboys played—and lost—Game 256 three straight seasons in 2011, ’12 and ’13, the favorite division of TV network executives everywhere has been absent from the big game.
I think the Redskins will be voted No. 31 or 32 in a lot of power rankings around the internet this week, and don’t think they’ll be in contention for a playoff spot. If the game matters for the Cowboys, of course it garners consideration. But there are other games with a much better chance to matter on both sides.
12. Falcons at Buccaneers
How much do you believe in Bruce Arians? The Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since 2007. They’ve finished last in the division in eight of the 11 years since. Will Arians transform the team in his first season and turn the Bucs into a playoff contender? In a tough division where the Saints and Panthers are also NFC contenders, it’s hard to see this game getting flexed. The Falcons could certainly be in the mix, but I think they’d be competing for a spot with another team that has a more interesting and more relevant game.
11. Cardinals at Rams
Are Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray ready for primetime? I think most of us expect them to be fun, and certainly more watchable than last year’s Cardinals. But I’m not sure many people expect them to hang around in the playoff race, in a pretty tough NFC West. Last year the Rams went 13-3 and needed a win in Week 17 to clinch a first-round bye. They could again have a meaningful game, whether they need to win to get in, win to clinch the division or again win for seeding. But I still think the NFL would prefer to have a game that matters to both teams, and I think they’re more likely to find it elsewhere.
10. Colts at Jaguars
Once again, the Colts are my dividing line. This year we’re at No. 10, and this is the first game that really wouldn’t surprise me at all to get flexed into the SNF timeslot. Plenty of people remain bullish on the Colts’ playoff chances even without Andrew Luck. I’m not picking them to reach the postseason in my own predictions, but I’m at least willing to entertain your arguments. The Jaguars should be better this season with Nick Foles, a familiar character to the NBC primetime audience of the last two years. This feels more likely to match last year’s “winner gets a wild-card” stakes than to be a battle for the division, but I always say that the AFC South is perennially the division with the best chance of finishing in the exact reverse order of the expert projections. So let’s pencil in Jacoby Brissett vs. Nick Foles as a primetime possibility.
9. Titans at Texans
And now for the other AFC South matchup. I have the Texans winning the division, as do the oddsmakers after Luck’s retirement. The Titans were in this game last year and now have a better backup QB when Marcus Mariota inevitably misses time. (Or maybe Ryan Tannehill will simply be given a chance to take over? How do you power rank AFC South QBs after Deshaun Watson?) Either way, I give this game the slight edge given the Texans’ playoff odds. But all four AFC South teams have a chance to compete for a wild-card berth so I’ll keep the two games back to back.
8. Packers at Lions
These two teams apparently have a deal to play each other in Week 17 every season now. They met in Game 256 in 2016 (when I also had them ranked No. 8), and then I had them ranked No. 6 and No. 3 the last two years. The Lions’ star has faded a bit, after Matt Patricia’s squad followed up back-to-back nine-win seasons with a 6-10 campaign in his first year as a head coach. And the Packers have missed the playoffs two straight years, though it’s easy to be optimistic every September when you have Aaron Rodgers. It says much more about the Lions than the Packers that I don’t have this game ranked higher.
7. Jets at Bills
In what’s easily a record for the non-Patriots AFC East game in my rankings, here we have the Jets and the Bills. We’ve got two second-year quarterbacks on a pair of presumably up-and-coming teams, in an underrated fun atmosphere for a big primetime game.
It’s probably a year early for both of them to contend for an AFC East title. Should the Patriots take a step back this year, one of them could make a run at the longtime kings of the AFC East (and it could be either of them), but it’s really, really hard to imagine a winner-take-all game for the division crown where neither team is New England. But maybe, just maybe, these two teams will have a wild-card bid at stake. The race for the final two playoff spots in the AFC feels as open as its been in a long time, and if those are the stakes it would be a fun game to flex.
6. Eagles at Giants
The Eagles should be a playoff team, according to most people. Last year they needed (and got) a win plus help in Week 17 to punch their ticket. This year consensus says they’re even better.
The Giants have a few ways their season could play out. Eli Manning probably has to have them in playoff contention to keep his job all season, in which case this would seem like an easy call to give this game to a national audience. Or the Giants might stumble through a lost season and transition to rookie Daniel Jones. If the team is 5-10, it won’t matter. But should we leave the door open for the chance that Jones helps turn around the Giants’ season? That could make this an even more enticing game than if, say, Eli remains at the helm and the team is 8-7.
I think it’s more likely than not that the Giants are out of playoff contention coming into Week 17, but maybe it's boosted in my rankings by the fact that NBC would love it if this game mattered and that it might be a weak Week 17 slate this year. I tried to move it down, but I mean Jets-Bills is right there.
5. 49ers at Seahawks
The Rams are the defending NFC West champs, but should they suffer a Super Bowl hangover, these are the two teams who would be ready to knock on the door. Seattle often seems to be better than people think, and San Francisco is just one year removed from being everyone’s preseason darling. This game also gives us another great primetime crowd and stadium.
Both teams have a shot to be a factor in the crowded NFC playoff hunt, but I rank this below a couple of other NFC games because I do see the 49ers as a weaker link than some of the conference’s other playoff hopefuls. If this was a Rams-Seahawks game, we’d be looking at a contender for the top spot.
4. Steelers at Ravens
I know everyone wants to crown the Browns already, but let’s not forget about the other two contenders in the AFC North. The Steelers have been contenders for Ben Roethlisberger’s entire career and the Ravens won this division last year. Both of these teams should be in contention in a weaker AFC—if not for the division then at least for a wild-card berth—and a rivalry that in the not-too-distant past was NBC’s absolute favorite might impact four or five different playoff seeds going into the final Sunday.
3. Bears at Vikings
I think both of these teams (along with the Packers) will be in the mix for a division title and/or a wild-card spot. The NFC is rife with contenders, and either the North or South could end up with three playoff teams. Some deserving teams will be left out, and at least a couple of them will hang around long enough to earn a heaping portion of disappointment on the final week of the season. Bears and Vikings fans—that could be you!
The NFC North could be one of the NFL’s best divisions, and with Packers-Bears kicking things off in Week 1, this game gives us a good shot to begin and end the regular season watching teams from the North slug it out.
2. Saints at Panthers
You can copy and paste a lot of my thoughts on Bears-Vikings and apply them to Saints-Panthers. The deep NFC... The division with three legitimate contenders... The strong likelihood that one of these teams will have their heartbroken on the final day of the season.
I am betting on a rebound season from the Panthers here, and they’ll need Cam Newton to be healthy to deserve a ranking this high, but I’m giving Saints-Panthers an edge thanks to the quarterbacks. Like last year, this is the only Week 17 game where both teams have a QB who’s started a Super Bowl. If both of these games matter, Newton and Drew Brees would be a much sexier TV game than Mitchell Trubisky vs. Kirk Cousins. But both games have a lot of potential, and one of them is likely to be the NFC’s most important game of the week.
1. Chargers at Chiefs
You may recall at the top of this column that I said Raiders-Broncos was the only game featuring two teams that are clearly the bottom two in the division. So naturally, on the flip side, we have the two squads expected to battle for the AFC West crown. I think the Chiefs are the best team in the AFC and may have clinched the division by then, but this game could still have seeding implications for Kansas City plus wild-card ramifications for the Bolts. No matter the details, I think we have two playoff contenders in a fun stadium with a great crowd, and two quarterbacks people would want to watch. The Chiefs happen to play the Sunday night game in Week 16 too (at Chicago), but I don’t think that would be a deterrent. Particularly because if Patrick Mahomes plays at the same level he did last year, he’ll join guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers among the absolute peak stars in the game. The star quarterbacks drive the league’s popularity, and who would you rather watch in the crown jewel of the regular season than Patrick Mahomes?
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