- In most years, the NFL will flex the Week 17 game with the biggest impact on the playoff picture to Sunday Night Football on the final night of the regular season. A preseason power ranking of each game's chances to be the final game of the 2018 regular season
Fool me once, shame on you.
Last year I filed my annual preseason Week 17 Sunday Night Football Flex Power Rankings with the understanding that there would actually be a Sunday Night Football game in Week 17. After all, the league had given us some memorable matchups by flexing one game into the nightcap spot in each of the previous nine seasons, and added some extra juice by scheduling exclusively division games for Week 17 since 2010. And even though I wrote throughout the piece about the implications of Game 256 being on New Year’s Eve, the league had done nothing to indicate they might stray from standard protocol.
But then, with an uncommon stroke of self-awareness, common sense and restraint, the NFL (likely in conjunction with NBC) made the game-time decision to pull the plug. With no true win-and-in matchup to settle a division or a playoff spot, and with the potential that a game would matter to only one of the two teams based on results earlier in the day, the league decided to give us a night off. Perhaps scared off by the ratings the College Football Playoff semifinals received on New Year’s Eve in 2015 and 2016, the NFL willingly gave up a primetime window.
It was the right move, even if you happen to be the type who obsesses over the crown jewel of the regular season from schedule release day over the summer through the final whistle of Week 16.
Fool me twice? Well, I’m diving back in. Once again, I’ll power-rank the 16 games in order of their likelihood to be flexed. The rankings will take into account a few factors, including the quality of the teams, the rivalry they have with each other, the likelihood the game will matter and the appeal of the teams to a national audience.
16. DOLPHINS AT BILLS
Until the Patriots are finally overthrown, it will be hard for the perennial also-rans of the AFC East to rank highly here. It’s possible that these two teams, who do have one playoff appearance each in the last two seasons, could be in the hunt again. But the odds of them both having Wild Card hopes alive in Week 17 seem slim, and the chances that the division title comes down to this matchup in Week 17 are even slimmer.
15. BROWNS AT RAVENS
If the Browns are in the playoff chase, that would be a great story for the NFL. And I do appreciate the symmetry of starting the season with Hard Knocks and following the journey to this endpoint—the Browns’ quest to lock up a playoff spot. But they’d have more chance at a meaningful game if they were playing the Steelers, and the likelihood that both of these teams are in the hunt come Week 17 is only slightly better than Dolphins-Bills.
14. COLTS AT TITANS
A brief pause here to mention that this year’s slate of games looks particularly strong—at least before the first 16 weeks destroys everything we think we know about the upcoming season. But compared to the last two years, it took almost no time at all to arrive at a matchup I could honestly picture as Game 256. The AFC South is a perennially tough division to project, with the best chance of any division to finish in the exact opposite order of the consensus preseason projected standings. Still, these are the teams I have running third and fourth in the division, and the AFC South has historically had more experience in the dreaded Saturday afternoon Wild Card game than getting flexed into prime time.
13. CARDINALS AT SEAHAWKS
Three-to-five years ago this probably would have been a top-three choice, but now the other NFC West game has passed it by. Seattle is a great environment for prime time though, and if both of these teams are relevant then it would be a fun choice. Sam Bradford did start a Week 17 flex game back in 2010 when the Seahawks topped the Rams to claim a division title at 7-9—so anything can happen. But there’s a better chance of Josh Rosen taking over an underachieving team than Bradford leading a playoff charge.
12. JETS AT PATRIOTS
This game has two paths to irrelevance—either the Jets falling out of contention before Week 17, or the Patriots having their position already clinched. We’ve seen both happen plenty over the last decade. That said, second place in the AFC East is available for the taking. If the Pats slide back down to the pack, it’s not impossible to imagine the Jets being their main competition. And perhaps most important to these rankings: If this is a meaningful game then NBC would surely love to be in Foxborough.
11.5 NO GAME
You won’t trick me again, NFL. Now that I know this is a thing, I’ll draw the line here. It’s more likely that the league again cancels the game than flexes any of the six we’ve covered. I highly doubt the league wants to do that again, and I definitely believe New Year’s Eve was part of last year’s calculus, but I’ll throw this in the rankings somewhere to be safe.
11. BEARS AT VIKINGS
Picking up from Patriots-Jets, we now continue a run of games featuring one seemingly surefire Super Bowl contender against another team that appears just on the outskirts of true contention. The Vikings are fresh off an NFC championship game appearance, and optimism is surging in Chicago after the Khalil Mack trade, but I don’t want to overreact too much in a division that still also includes the Packers.
10. FALCONS AT BUCCANEERS
Copy and paste what I said about the AFC South’s unpredictability and you have the history of the NFC South as well. But I think the division features two Super Bowl favorites, one Super Bowl dark horse and also the Tamp Bay Bucs. If the Falcons and Saints are division co-favorites, the Saints-Panthers game is much more likely to feature two teams with playoff hopes still alive.
9. RAIDERS AT CHIEFS
This is a historically strong rivalry game in an underrated, fun prime time location. This would probably be more meaningful to ESPN than NBC, given the Jon Gruden angle. I didn’t personally have the Raiders as a playoff team even before the Mack trade, but in both a wide open division and conference, this game probably has a better chance of mattering to both teams than any of the games before it.
8. BENGALS AT STEELERS
This was a hard one to separate from Raiders-Chiefs. It’s another very good rivalry, and these teams have given us some wildly, uh, interesting(?) games in recent years. They also received the Week 17 flex in 2014. Your division picks may differ, but I think we have crossed the halfway point of the rankings and reached the first game between two teams with a realistic shot to finish first and second in their division. And a game for the division title would be much more fun than a loser-goes-home match just for a Wild Card slot. If the AFC North is a weak division with no Wild Card, this could be both.
7. CHARGERS AT BRONCOS
Predict the Chargers to have a good season at your own risk, but they are intriguing every September. The Broncos slid last year, but are still undeniably talented. So here we have two teams that might be good, in a division that might be good, but probably has the widest range of outcomes. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if both of these teams enter Week 17 at 9-6, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if both of them are 6-9. But these teams would be appealing if they’re the division frontrunners and there’s a definite chance we’ll see Mile High in prime time.
6. JAGUARS AT TEXANS
If the Jags are as good as they were last year, and if Deshaun Watson is all the way back, this has the potential to be a great game. It could definitely be for the division title, or for playoff seeding between two teams that expect to be there. Despite the potential to be a truly fun match-up, NBC would likely choose teams and markets that get bigger ratings if they have the chance. Even if it’s one of the more appealing games of the week, it would take a bit of a perfect storm for this one to actually get flexed. But despite landing down at No. 6, this game is actually the top AFC game on my list.
5. COWBOYS AT GIANTS
These rankings always have an NFC East bias, mostly because NBC has an NFC East bias. If this game fits the criteria, it wins. Because the Cowboys always win. As they did when NBC flexed them for Week 17 in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The Eagles are division favorites, but if Carson Wentz misses too much time and/or they regress, these two teams could find themselves at the top of a closely bunched group of teams, making them an instant favorite to get flexed.
4. EAGLES AT REDSKINS
And now the other half of the NFC East. I’ll give a slight edge to the defending Super Bowl champions, who are expected to repeat as division winners. It wouldn’t really be much of a surprise if the Redskins finished second, third or fourth, so they have as good a shot as anyone to face Philly in a mutually important game. This is another one with a great chance to get picked if it matters—especially because that would mean Cowboys-Giants likely doesn’t.
3. LIONS AT PACKERS
These teams were flexed into Game 256 back in 2016—surely you remember Aaron Ripkowski and Zach Zenner leading their teams in rushing as the Packers wrapped up the NFC North and forced the Lions to go on the road as a Wild Card team. The Vikings remain formidable, but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau would be great for ratings if the Lions can hang in the race. Rodgers and Tom Brady are the league’s two biggest stars, and he’s the one not facing the Jets in Week 17.
2. PANTHERS AT SAINTS
The NFC South has been my favorite division in football for some time now. Every year it delivers fun teams, fun games and enough unpredictability to keep things from getting stale. With three potentially very good teams, the Game-Without-Tampa was always going to rate highly. I know not everybody is as high on Carolina as I am, but this game gives us two marquee quarterbacks (the only game on the schedule in which both QBs have played in the Super Bowl) and a rivalry game in another of the league’s fun home stadium environments. We could easily see two teams playing for the division, or one of them playing for a division and the other for a Wild Card.
1. 49ERS AT RAMS
This may be the NFL’s top choice, as Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay could be overseeing the emergence of the league’s next great rivalry. With Aaron Donald chasing around Jimmy G. in the Coliseum, we could have star power and sexy storylines all over the place. Flex this game on Sunday before New Year’s Eve on Monday and the Rose Bowl on Tuesday, and you’d have a nice long weekend in L.A. These same teams came in 15th in my rankings last season—that ranking was totally justified by the 49ers’ 6-10 record—but the leap to No. 1 just goes to show you how much can change in one year. Like, you know, actually having the dang game.
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