Welcome back to the sixth annual … well hang on a second, what are we calling these? For the last five years I have offered my backward NFL season preview, power ranking which Week 17 games were most likely to be flexed into prime time as the 256th and final game of the regular season.
And then the NFL went and changed all the numbers on me, adding an 18th week and a 272nd game.
This time last year I wrote about how there was never a more precarious time to predict how the season would end and speculated that we didn’t even know if the NFL would play all 256 games. Now we’ll probably never see that few games again.
If you’re reading this, you probably know the deal already, but here’s a refresher: In the final week of the NFL season, all 16 games pit division opponents against each other in an effort to create more compelling matchups. The league hopes to have at least one game with major stakes that won’t depend on the outcome of another game so it can flex that one to Sunday Night Football on NBC. People call it #Game256, the Crown Jewel of the Regular SeasonTM. (Note: I am the only one who calls it that.)
This happens every year, except 2017 when the game should have been on New Year’s Eve, there were no ideal matchups and the league just kept all the games in the afternoon. Last year, we got a glimpse of exactly why the league tries to find a game that matters to both teams.
The NFL gave us a questionable-on-paper matchup between a 6–9 Washington team and the 4–10–1 Eagles. Washington knew a win would give it the least impressive division crown in recent memory. The Eagles knew a loss would improve their first-round pick from No. 9 to No. 6. It was an all-timer of a goofy NFL game that will inspire retrospectives and documentaries. The football world had a collective meltdown.
I won’t relitigate the whole matter. But the details we’ll remember are that Nate Sudfeld replaced Jalen Hurts with the outcome still in doubt, and it was the last time Carson Wentz or Doug Pederson stood on the Eagles’ sideline.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m worried that last year’s Game 256 may be a precursor of what’s to come. Simply put: Week 18 may be a problem. By expanding both the regular season and the playoffs, the NFL is diluting the amount each game matters. I’m not worried about the sanctity of each game on the calendar, like the people who spent years arguing against a college football playoff; I’m thinking more practically about teams that clinch earlier, get eliminated earlier or have more incentives to pull lineup shenanigans in the last couple weeks of the season. As the 2020 season wound down, I compared the Jaguars to the Baltimore Orioles in my roundabout way to discuss how simple math dictates a longer season should spread teams out in the standings. Earlier this offseason I doubled down in a back and forth with Conor Orr, in which I argued that while more football sounds like a good thing, it isn’t if it makes the games on the schedule worse. I’m on a crusade to convince fantasy leagues not to tack on an extra week, though I’m finding it a failing battle.
It isn’t fun being the guy arguing for less football. (Especially as a guy who loves football!) But I just worry it won’t go how most of the football-loving world expects it to.
But anyway, that doesn’t mean a man can’t dream. I’m still capable of looking through this slate of games and finding fun ones worth parking in front of the TV for, and I’m certainly not going to break tradition over it, six years into this bit. Just know that I’ll be there to say I told you so whether I predict the best game or I predict that the whole week is a disaster. I’m holding two potential winning tickets.
So these are technically my inaugural Week 18 Sunday Night Football Flex Power Rankings, but I’m still going ahead and calling it my sixth annual column. Because, much like the Eagles get to choose which quarterback to play in the second half, I’m allowed to do what I want.
On to the rankings!
16. Titans at Texans
It feels like every year we have one team most people agree is the worst in the league. And there’s no question that this year it’s the Texans. Would it be a great story if Tyrod Taylor or Davis Mills takes over the starting quarterback job and leads this ragtag crew we all apparently underestimated into the playoff hunt? Sure. Do I think it’s happening? No. We learned definitively last year that it takes two opponents to make a Week 18 game matter, and this one probably won’t.
15. Bengals at Browns
The future may be bright for Joe Burrow and the Bengals, but I think the team is at least another year away. It’s hard for me to see the Bengals in the playoff picture come Week 18, and even harder to imagine this game determining the AFC North crown. A game in Cleveland would have gotten a higher rating last year, with the potential of seeing Browns fans react to the end of a long playoff drought. But Browns fans can take this as a compliment: We’ve seen it already.
14. Packers at Lions
Here’s another one of the NFL’s expected bottom-dwellers, this time facing off against one of the league’s true top-tier teams. This is one of those games that has the potential to be meaningless in both directions—the Lions may be long out of it, and the Packers may have already clinched a high playoff seed. These two teams were flexed into Game 256 back in 2016, but that was several last-place finishes ago for Detroit.
13. Colts at Jaguars
I’m sticking with my plan of putting the worst teams at the bottom. I think there’s a clear bottom four and I’ve slotted them all in my rankings accordingly. The AFC South has traditionally rated well in these rankings, given the uncertainty in that division over the last half-dozen years. But I’m low on both of its games in 2021. Colts-Titans would have ranked very well! But, alas, the schedule-makers likely have us feasting our eyes elsewhere. I will put this game above the previous three given the potential Trevor Lawrence story—I mean, what if he is really, really, good as a rookie?—but I don’t want to get too carried away.
12. Jets at Bills
Rookie quarterbacks can be tough to rank on this list. On one hand, any of the five first-rounders would offer up great narratives if they led their teams to the playoffs. Any of them would get a ton of attention and awards hype, and be a natural pick for NBC. On the other hand, some of them will be really hard-pressed to do it. So Zach Wilson is ranking down here in Trevor Lawrence land, which says much more about the teams that drafted them with the first two picks than my expectations for their rookie seasons. And the Bills are good enough you have to worry we’d only see their starters for a fraction of this game.
11. Saints at Falcons
While I don’t think either of these teams will be bad, this game suffers from not having the Buccaneers in it. I could see either of these teams alive at the end. But to see them settling the NFC South with the Bucs nowhere in the picture? That would be surprising. And given the makeup of the NFC, it would also be unlikely the Bucs would win the NFC South and both of these teams would be in the hunt for a wild card. There are just too many teams at the top for both the Saints and Falcons to be at the table. Unless something goes horribly wrong somewhere else, which of course it often does. But I’m trying to rank what’s most likely.
10. Bears at Vikings
Similarly, this game suffers from not having the Packers in it. I give it a slight nod over Saints-Falcons because of Justin Fields. No offense to Jameis Winston and Matt Ryan, but everyone always wants to see the hot, new thing. Given that Andy Dalton will start the season, Fields is most likely to finally enter the picture if and when Dalton is struggling. So if he comes off the bench and rallies the Bears toward the playoffs, or potentially even saves their season, the climactic final game would be a must-watch. The Vikings would need to hold up their end of the bargain too, but they are often in that average-team-clinging-to-playoff-hopes group whether you believe in them or not.
9. Chargers at Raiders
And here’s our third straight game that’s missing the clear top team in the division. I could have broken my rankings into tiers this year, but that would have required coming up with catchy subtitles. Anyway, I think it’s more likely this game features two playoff contenders than the last two games on the list. Everyone loves the Chargers every September, and the Raiders have hung around that .500 mark the last two years. I think it would be the Saints or the Falcons still alive in Week 18; and the Bears or the Vikings fighting for a wild-card berth; but possibly both the Chargers and the Raiders in the thick of things. Not likely enough to put this game in the top half of my rankings, but likely enough to land here.
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8. Panthers at Buccaneers
A fun fact about TV networks is that they love to show Tom Brady. Apparently people tune in and watch. But the Bucs—like the Chiefs, Packers and Bills—might not have much to play for. I think this is really an area where the NFL loses out by cutting the number of first-round byes from two to one. Sure, there will be more teams alive for wild cards. But I think we lose something with fewer teams competing for byes deeper into the season. We already saw last year where the Steelers weren’t too concerned about the difference between the No. 2 seed and the No. 3. We obviously don’t know if the Bucs will be locked into a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, or still fighting for something. But the odds of their at least having taken care of NFC South business seem pretty high. I don’t quite believe in the Panthers this year, but I know other people do. Let’s tuck it right in the middle of the list.
7. Seahawks at Cardinals
The NFC West could unfold in so many different ways. It’s clearly the best division top-to-bottom, and it wouldn’t be stunning to see any of these teams have a great year. Most experts, odds and projections have the Cardinals in fourth place, but it wouldn’t shock me to see them win 12 games with a healthier Kyler Murray. But these are the preseason third and fourth teams, so it would take some stumbling in San Francisco and L.A. for both of these teams to wind up in the most meaningful game on January 9. Spoiler alert: We will see those other NFC West teams later on in this list.
6. Patriots at Dolphins
Every year I do these rankings, and every year I am wrong. So the winner is always at least mildly surprising to me, and for whatever reason this is the one I have circled. It doesn’t have a ton of star power on the field (though Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa could see their Q scores blow up), but of course it would be a huge story if the Patriots had a chance to return to the playoffs after Tom Brady won a Super Bowl without them last year. This is also a fun rivalry. The Patriots have a history of playing poorly in Miami. This is Bill Belichick vs. one of his protégés in Brian Flores. The Dolphins went 10–6 last year, which is weirdly easy to forget because they missed the playoffs. I think the Bills will win the AFC East, but I could see these teams alive at the end, and I could see this having appeal if it matters.
5. Washington at Giants
Folks … I don’t know. I just don’t know what to do with the NFC East. For years this column had an admitted NFC East bias, borne out of the fact that TV networks love the division and that the Cowboys played in this game three years in a row against three different division opponents from 2011 to ’13. But last year I let my guard down and ranked both of the games too low (12th and 13th!), and I just can’t make that mistake again. Will these teams be 10–6? Will they be 7–9? Will they be playing for the division title anyway? Who can even say anymore? But it’s all on the table. I will not allow myself to be surprised by any combination of teams in contention, and I know the TV networks would happily take any NFC East game that mattered. This game could be Taylor Heinicke vs. Mike Glennon trying to win the division at 7–8–2 and it would be beamed into your television in prime time. We cannot control the cosmic gumbo that is NFC East football; we can only learn to live with it.
4. Eagles at Cowboys
3. Chiefs at Broncos
This game gets the Patrick Mahomes bump, and deservedly so. The Chiefs are nearly automatic good TV right now, and we’ll continue to see them in prime time plenty. Of course, there’s a danger that they’ll already have the No. 1 seed locked up and won’t need to play him (like last year in Week 17). The Broncos have a lot of talent, and some people are picking them as a bit of a sleeper team (even though it’s nearly impossible to have a real sleeper team these days, given how many people follow every team so closely). But if they hang in the playoff hunt and this game matters to both teams, it would be an easy choice. And Denver is an underrated fun stadium atmosphere for a night game.
2. Steelers at Ravens
All NFC East jokes aside, these two teams have been one of NBC’s dream rivalries for a long time now. This could easily be a game to decide the AFC North, or to decide playoff seeding. With big names, lots of history and tons on the line, this would be another no-brainer. And I think it has a better chance of mattering to both teams than Chiefs-Broncos. For some bonus drama: Would this be Ben Roethlisberger’s final game against the Ravens? Could it be his final game … ever … if a loss knocks the Steelers out of the playoff picture? It’s a well-worn cliché to say, “Well for us the playoffs started a week early,” but if we want a true playoff atmosphere one week before the actual playoffs, this could be an easy place to find it.
1. 49ers at Rams
I’m once again very high on the NFC West (who isn’t this year?) and these are probably the two best teams. Both of these teams enter the season with star power, Super Bowl hopes and a hotshot young coach the world loves to heap praise upon. They could easily be competing for the division title, a wild-card spot or a combination of the two. Add in the possibility of Trey Lance, who most people assume will have taken over for Jimmy Garoppolo by this point, and that would only add to the intrigue. But this would be a great way to end the regular season no matter who is on the field.
While I am still against Week 18 in general, this would certainly be a fun game. And no silent protest from me—I’ll be watching closely. Just because I think it could be a better product to keep the supply limited, that doesn’t mean I won’t clear my schedule for whatever the NFL gives me. We’re just 271 games away from the first #Game272 in history, and not even Nate Sudfeld could ruin it for me.
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