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NFL Schedule 2022: The Week 18 Sunday Night Football Flex Power Rankings

Skipping way ahead to envision the final week of the regular season, and predicting which games will matter the most.

If you’re new around here, you may be wondering: Why? Maybe you read the headline twice. Perhaps you’re still digesting things a bit. But please, set your confusion aside as I welcome you to the seventh annual preseason Week 18 Sunday Night Football flex power rankings. (Or, if you want to get technical, second annual Week 18 SNFFPR—of course, the first five years of this exercise we were ranking Week 17 games.)

Anyway, for those of you wondering why I would waste brainpower considering such a thing, I think last year neatly proved my point. #Game272 has the potential to be the Crown Jewel of the Regular SeasonTM, so we should treat it that way. If we’re going to predict who’s playing in all the real playoff games, why not spare a thought for this one, too?

The 2021 regular-season finale was equal parts hilarious and incredible. As I’m sure you’ve thought about a few times this offseason, the game featured the Chargers and Raiders. It was picked for that time slot due to its win-and-in consequences in the AFC wild-card race, but things started getting nutty a full week before, when people realized the two teams could simply tie each other to guarantee both teams entry into the postseason. This led to Steelers fans watching nervously at home, as that particular outcome was the only thing that could keep Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement tour out of the playoffs.

So what happened? An all-time classic back-and-forth game that actually went to overtime. And then a confusing ending (did Brandon Staley’s timeout matter or not?) and very nearly that freakin’ tie, until a Daniel Carlson field goal as time expired sent Las Vegas (and Pittsburgh) on to the next round.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

For years now, this has been one of my favorite wrinkles on the schedule. The league mandates exclusively division games in the final week of the season and flexes the one with maximum playoff significance into the prime-time window.

It can be challenging to find a game that holds up regardless of what happens in the day’s earlier games. (This is how the Nate Sudfeld fiasco was born.) That’s now complicated by the fact that two additional games will be farmed out to Saturday, as was the case last year.

But when you build a playoff game into the regular-season calendar, you never know what can happen. So each year, on the eve of the season, I try to predict which Week 18 game we’ll all be watching together—my sort of backward NFL season preview. And unfortunately I’m not allowed to retire the gimmick until I’m right one of these years.

So here are my rankings for the games most likely to be flexed.

Kirk Cousins throws a pass against the Bears.

Cousins has played lots of games against the Bears, but this one feels destined for the 1:00 ET window.

16. Vikings at Bears

Every year when I rank these games, I have to weigh each team individually and as part of a pair. This game is here mostly because of the Bears, but also because the Vikings aren’t good enough to bail out one of the consensus worst teams in football. It feels like a lot of people are sleeping on the Vikings as an NFC wild-card candidate. But it’s hard to envision this game mattering at all to Chicago, or for whatever stakes the Vikings have to justify putting this matchup in prime time.

15. Jets at Dolphins

For the first several years I wrote this column, I mentioned it was hard to see the non-Patriots AFC East game mattering too much for the division crown. We can now say that about the Bills, though the result is the same for a Jets-vs.-Dolphins encounter. The AFC is just too crowded and deep for both of these teams to be alive come January. And even if one of these teams is still in the hunt, I think there will be better options for the nightcap, either to settle a division or simply give us a more interesting game.

14. Texans at Colts

The Texans are definitely one of the least appealing teams for TV this season, but I put this above two other games because I think the Colts are the most likely of the first six teams to be in the playoff race—and easily the most likely to have a shot at winning their division. I will admit: It would be a great story line if Indianapolis, coming off last year’s total choke job in Weeks 17 and 18, has a home win-and-in game to reach the postseason. The pressure on Frank Reich & Co. would ooze through the screen. But you can make a case for any of the 16 games to be interesting if the season breaks a certain way. Some of them have to rank near the bottom.

13. Browns at Steelers

I think the Ravens and Bengals are pretty clearly the two best teams in the AFC North. So while it’s possible one of these teams will be alive in the playoff race, it’ll be hard for both of them to still be in the mix. Beyond that, I don’t think the NFL will want to put Deshaun Watson in this time slot. When the initial schedule came out, the league gave the Browns just two games outside of the 1 p.m. ET window, both during Watson’s suspension. Don’t get me wrong; I am appropriately cynical that the NFL will be happy to someday put him on TV and rake in whatever ratings come of it. I just think that won’t happen until next season, when the league tries to move on.

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12. Buccaneers at Falcons

This game feels similar to Colts-Texans, though the Bucs are a bigger favorite to win their division than Indianapolis is. There’s also a Tom Brady bump, because getting him in another prime-time game is always a win for any TV network. Also, it’s possible Brady will have announced his retirement by this point in the season. If so, the game could be appetizing even if it’s meaningless for Atlanta. Would you watch Tom Brady try to put up a 50-burger on the downtrodden Falcons to wrap up a division title in his last regular-season game? If that comes to pass, we will laugh that I had this at No. 12. Just trust me that it feels right in this moment.

11. Titans at Jaguars

I’ll give the Jaguars a slight bump over the Falcons, in terms of chances to hang around in the playoff picture. I also think the viewing public would be much more interested in Trevor Lawrence putting an exclamation point on a second-year leap than Marcus Mariota or Desmond Ridder. There are a few ways this game could play out. It’s very possible it’ll mean everything to Ryan Tannehill and the Titans. It’s also possible this could be a Malik Willis game, either with the AFC South clinched or after having gone through a trying season. This game is still a long shot, but I’ll put it down as a maybe.

10. Rams at Seahawks

The defending champs will open the season on NBC; what are the odds they bookend the regular season? Not terribly likely, unless you’re quite high on the Seahawks staying competitive in a rebuilding year. Still, this ranking leaves open a little wiggle room for NFC West weirdness. With both this game and the next two to follow, I’m also putting the NFC’s fringe-ish teams ahead of the AFC’s, a reflection of one conference being more wide open, knowing that at least a couple of these teams will have to be in the mix as the season comes down the stretch.

Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield faces the Browns in Week 1.

Mayfield definitely makes the Panthers more interesting.

9. Panthers at Saints

You can squint and kinda see this game on the graphic during Sunday Night Football, as the announcers say, “And we’ve just gotten word where we’re going to be next week …” (Strangely, I heard it in Al Michaels’s voice, so there’s a lot we’ll have to get used to this year.) But if the Bucs have a real wheels-fall-off sort of season, the division winner is sitting right here. Jameis Winston vs. Baker Mayfield! A pair of No. 1 picks in new homes trying to resurrect their careers in a raucous Superdome. It would take a lot to break the right way, but this could be a wild game if it matters, with story lines galore.

8. Lions at Packers

The Lions are a fun team that seemingly everyone wants to get behind. If Dan Campbell’s crew grows up and takes a big step, and the Hard Knocks darlings charge after that last playoff spot, I could see them being a breath of fresh air. And the Packers are the Packers, at last check still with Aaron Rodgers. That’s a made-for-TV team, as always. I’m betting on the Lions to some extent by listing this game so far ahead of Falcons-Bucs, which fits a similar archetype.

7. Giants at Eagles

These rankings have always had a well-deserved NFC East bias, because NBC simply loves to force-feed us the NFC East. If we were getting Eagles-Cowboys this year, it would have been an easy No. 1 for me. When we split up the two presumptive favorites, I have to scan the list and talk myself into moving the NFC East games down from what feels too ridiculous. Do I really think the Giants (and the Commanders, for that matter) will still be there once everyone has already started breaking their New Year’s resolutions? Not particularly. But we know the league, for a variety of reasons, is comfortable giving us literally any NFC East game at all—and you just can’t fight it.

6. Cowboys at Commanders

I will put Cowboys-Commanders a little higher than Giants-Eagles, but I thought about flipping them. Consider them more like 6A and 6B. No team has won back-to-back NFC East crowns since 2004, which means technically it’s Dallas’s turn. And I will give the Commanders just a slight edge over the Giants heading into this season. Each year, I’m obligated to remind you that Dallas played in this game three years in a row from ’11 to ’13, losing to each of its division rivals. So you will not be surprised to see the Cowboys back in this game. Who’s ready for wide panning shots of a mostly empty FedExField? Just kidding. I’m sure plenty of Dallas fans will be there.

5. Patriots at Bills

These two teams treated us to two prime-time games down the stretch last year—that ridiculous windy night when the Patriots threw the ball three times all game, then the playoff rematch when the Bills got revenge by absolutely blowing the doors off their longtime foils. Everyone expects Buffalo to be a juggernaut this season. If the Patriots can stay within striking distance in the AFC East, this would be a no-brainer. Even if they can’t, you could envision the Bills needing a win to clinch home field advantage, with the Patriots still alive for something. Or even just being a fun opponent that would never lay down for a rival, even in a meaningless game for them. Bring me more images of shirtless Ryan Fitzpatrick in the frigid Buffalo night!

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4. Cardinals at 49ers

In some ways, how you feel about this ranking depends on what you think of Trey Lance. But in other ways, it depends even more on what you think of Kyler Murray. The 49ers’ defense is probably good enough to keep that team afloat even if the second-year QB isn’t quite ready for prime time. The Cardinals, on the other hand, may need Murray to carry more of the load for them to get back to the playoffs this year. Either way, I think this would be a fun matchup. There is so much attention on the defending champion Rams, but this is a battle between young QBs who could be competing for this division for a long time once age and the salary cap finally catch up to L.A. Why not add a memorable chapter to the rivalry right here?

3. Chiefs at Raiders

The AFC West is the best and deepest division in football; as such, those four teams make up two of the last three games on my board. It is tough to pick between them, and I’m really splitting hairs here. It’s a classic “These teams could finish in any order” situation—and we actually mean that as a compliment, like the NFC West a few years ago, not like the NFC East a few years ago. I think the Chiefs are still the team to beat in the division, and it would be fun if the Raiders have a chance to try to overtake them in Week 18, but I am giving a slight edge to the other game in the division.

2. Chargers at Broncos

We’re going with this one, because everyone loves the Chargers, and the newness of Russell Wilson in Denver will be one of the more interesting story lines on the field this year. I’ve always said Denver is an underrated prime-time home atmosphere, and there’s another edge over the game in Las Vegas. I also see a better chance of these two teams both remaining alive to this point, and I do believe both the Wilson and Justin Herbert narratives are exciting. Wilson could have engineered a trade to several teams, but jumped right into the fray in the toughest division in football, and it would be fun to watch him have to win a big game here. And I think the world would love to see Herbert, after falling just short despite a Week 18 masterpiece last season, still fighting for his first playoff berth (or to improve seeding, or something). Either AFC West game would be a great outcome, but this one is slightly on top and neither is No. 1.

Joe Burrow throwing a pass against the Ravens.

Get used to seeing Burrow on your TV. Specifically at night.

1. Ravens at Bengals

This is the best game on the slate. If the Bengals make last year’s playoff run look like the norm for them going forward, Joe Burrow is going to get the same type of treatment Patrick Mahomes got in the second year of his run with the Chiefs. In other words: Get used to seeing them on TV. I am personally picking the Ravens to win the AFC North, but the Bengals are the defending champs. Whoever is ahead Sunday morning of Week 18, I could envision both teams being in the playoff field and this game deciding the division crown.

I also think the atmosphere will be fun in Cincinnati. Last year’s playoff run featured a Saturday afternoon game at home, followed by two road games and the Super Bowl. In Week 17, the Bengals host the Bills on Monday night. I’d be up for seeing the Cincy faithful in the cold at night two weeks in a row. Game 272 always has a chance to be the game of the year. If we get Ravens-Bengals, we may see a perfect storm from the stakes of the game to the quality of the play to the interest in the players and teams involved. It’s almost too bad we have to wait 18 weeks to see it.

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