Game 256: Inside the NFL’s Week 17 Decision
The NFL had three choices for game number 256, the last regular-season game of the season, on Sunday night of Week 17. The league always wants that game to be a game with playoff implications, one that will be significant no matter what happens in the 15 previous games on the final Sunday before the playoffs. On the last weekend the league plays only division games. This year the choices involved one AFC game and two in the NFC.
There was one game in Week 17 with a true playoff feel, with the winner advancing to the playoffs and the loser going home. That was in the NFC South, with 6-8-1 Carolina at 6-9 Atlanta for the championship of one of the worst divisions ever.
There was one game with a division title on the line, but no feel of real sudden death, because both teams (11-4 Detroit and the 11-4 Packers) have already qualified for the playoffs. One will be NFC North champ, the other an NFC wild-card entry.
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There was one game with a murky feel, 9-5-1 Cincinnati at 10-5 Pittsburgh. When the NFL had to choose (seven days in advance, to respect the teams’ planning for the week), Cincinnati was in a strange position because of its game Monday night against Denver. The Bengals, of course, beat the Broncos 37-28 and clinched a playoff berth. So now the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game will be for the division title and the difference between being at home in the wild-card round and being on the road.
The NFL chose Cincinnati-Pittsburgh, as you know. After getting questions about it on Twitter, and wondering about it myself, I called NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz to ask for an explanation. Truth in reporting here: I also work for NBC, the network that will have the Sunday night game. I told Katz it was up to him whether he wanted to discuss this with me freely, seeing as though I could be viewed as having a vested interest because I draw a paycheck from NBC. But he wanted to discuss it.
"In the past four years, we’ve taken the Sunday night game in Week 17 from FOX," Katz says. "We thought it was fair to take the game from CBS this year."
"I’m for full transparency here," Katz said. “The truth is always the best explanation.”
As Katz explained, of the three options, two were FOX games and one a CBS game. All three were division title games. “No matter what would happen in the [Cincinnati-Denver] Monday night game, Cincinnati-Pittsburgh would be for the division. And there was further drama, potentially, that if the Bengals lost to Denver, they may have to win Sunday to even make the playoffs—and San Diego, Baltimore, Houston and Kansas City were all still alive in the AFC. So if Cincinnati needed to win to make the playoffs, there would be a twist because of the teams that would be alive Sunday during the day with a win."
One clarification there: San Diego locks up a playoff spot with a win at Kansas City on Sunday, regardless of anything else. And now that Cincinnati has clinched a spot, the drama has lessened a bit for Baltimore and Kansas City, which each need wins and help to reach the playoffs.
"There was one other important factor," said Katz. “In the past four years, we’ve taken the Sunday night game in Week 17 from FOX. We thought it was fair to take the game from CBS this year, seeing that we had a very good CBS option in Cincinnati-Pittsburgh. In the end we felt it was CBS’s turn." (Those four games: St. Louis-Seattle in 2010, Dallas-New York Giants in 2011, Dallas-Washington in 2012, and Dallas-Philadelphia in 2013.)
But, I replied to Katz, I’d always thought the NFL would take the game that created the most drama in Week 17, all things being equal. And the most dramatic game this year was Carolina-Atlanta, because the winner goes to the playoffs and the loser is finished for the year.
"Fair point," he said. “But given the point that we had an option on CBS, the fairer thing was to take the game from CBS."
The NFL ended up giving the Carolina-Atlanta game away anyway ... to CBS, as part of the new cross-flexing rules adopted this year so that one network on a given Sunday wouldn't get unfairly disadvantaged if the other network was full of big games. In this case, other than the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati AFC North title game, the two NFC division title games were by far the biggest games of the day. Instead of putting both on FOX, the NFL kept ratings magnet Green Bay on FOX in the late-afternoon window and gave the Atlanta-Carolina game to CBS. That gives CBS a couple of attractive games (but not as attractive ratings-wise).
And so the NFL ended up with strong matchups for CBS (Atlanta-Carolina and San Diego-Kansas City, both with win-and-in implications), a strong window for FOX in the late afternoon (Detroit-Green Bay), and a strong game for NBC at night (Cincinnati-Pittsburgh) for the AFC North title.
In the end the NFL moved the game that is a better national draw than Carolina-Atlanta and probably about equal to Green Bay-Detroit. Bengals-Steelers is a good rivalry game with a division championship on the line. It isn’t the survivor-pool game that Carolina-Atlanta is, but then again, the Panthers-Falcons game has a strange, do-they-really-belong feel to it. Who knows if America would have thought, Who cares who wins this game anyway? They won’t have a prayer in January.
Then the fairness factor comes into play, about doing the right thing (and, probably, the contractually right thing too) after taking four straight NFC games from FOX. That’s the part of the network dance the public never sees. (Nor do many of us with a couple of toes in the industry.) The league has to make a schedule that satisfies the demand for strong ratings but also satisfies the networks that pay growing sums for the product.
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