Sunday Night Football Week 17 Selection Post-Mortem

Week 17 (January 2):

  • Selected game: St. Louis @ Seattle.

Two years ago, two sports-media columnists got into an argument over whether the NFL was compelled to select an AFC game for Sunday Night Football Week 17. One of them claimed that the NFL was bound to keep the balance of primetime games taken from CBS and Fox relatively even, and the NFL had taken so many Fox games that they absolutely had to take a CBS game Week 17. The other disputed his claim but eventually conceded, and it turned out to be irrelevant because the only game guaranteed to be relevant before primetime was Broncos-Chargers for the AFC West crown.

But for me, that was only the beginning. After all, a rule like this would surely be relevant to my own attempts to predict the Sunday Night games, so even though the columnists in question never directly stated what it was, I surely needed to know. Intrigued, I decided to count the number of games taken from each network over the course of that season and found that the balance was Fox 22, CBS 19. That meant that the balance couldn’t exceed 22-20, which didn’t make sense to me that a rule that restrictive would be that obscure (after all, the NFL would be constantly restricted from flexing away from one network throughout the season!). Still, for the last two seasons, the initial distribution of primetime games has fit the 22-20 rule. This season, however, it will not end that way. With the selection of Rams-Seahawks in primetime Sunday night, the final distribution will be Fox 24, CBS 19. (The decision by the NFL to go head-to-head with the World Series added an additional primetime game.)

Now, in rereading the posts from two years ago in preparation for this one, I find reference made to the popularity of the NFC over the AFC over time, which could be construed to span multiple years, and any “violation” of the 22-20 rule would merely mean that we should expect the balance of games next year to take more games from CBS. (And that particular link seems to imply that the hit would primarily fall on the teams themselves. For the record, the Cowboys had a total of only four primetime games that season.) Regardless, it seems the 22-20 rule or whatever it is wasn’t prohibitive (or else the NFL would have flexed in an AFC game this week), which I guess explains why I was the only one worried about it.

And ultimately, Rams-Seahawks was selected for the same reason Broncos-Chargers was selected two years ago: it was the only game guaranteed to have playoff implications before primetime, after all the other games were played. Bears-Packers was very unlikely to become irrelevant; it’s a win-and-you’re-in game for the Packers, and the only scenario I can think of where a Packers loss wouldn’t disqualify them from the playoffs would still fall on the strength-of-victory tiebreaker. But that was too much for the NFL, who went for the absolutely sure thing even though it’s a complete dog between two sub-.500 teams from iffy markets for the NFC Worst where I’m rooting against my own team just so the division winner can finish at .500.

(Incidentially, I watched KING-TV’s “Pete Carroll Show” Sunday night in its timeslot that was adjusted because of the cancelled Sunday night game, and they advertised Rams-Seahawks taking place at 1 PM local time. Granted, the flex probably hadn’t come down yet, but I didn’t even see a notation that the time was subject to change. Then again, considering I think the time was listed as “1:05” in a Fox doubleheader week…)

The real story, though, from the last few wild weeks is that the NFL’s decision to schedule all division matchups Week 17 has effectively screwed NBC that week. NBC now appears to be stuck with either division title games in weak divisions like Rams-Seahawks, or lucking into two wild card contenders in the same division entering the final week tied at the edge of the playoffs (or a game apart with the team behind holding the tiebreaker if they win) AND playing each other.

Consider, for a second, two tied teams in the same division that don’t play each other. If the team with the tiebreaker wins, the team without it has nothing to play for. If you put the team with the tiebreaker in primetime, then if the team without the tiebreaker loses, the team with it also has nothing to play for. Putting the two teams a game apart just makes it worse. You need the two teams to be tied AND you need the tiebreaker situation if both teams win to be different from the tiebreaker situation if both teams lose. But the first three tiebreakers are: division games, common games, and conference games, and the NFL has made sure both teams are playing a game that’s all three. Remember, we needed both teams to have the same result, so all three tiebreakers will move in the same direction as well. The next tiebreaker is strength of victory, which you can’t count on.

The situation for the wild card, when competing against teams in other divisions, isn’t much better. The same constraints as in the first half of the last paragraph apply. The first tiebreaker (after head-to-head) is conference games, which both teams are playing. The next tiebreaker is common games, where an opening appears, since common games among teams in different divisions are rare, unless the teams’ divisions played each other. It’s conceivable for one team to play a common game while the other doesn’t… but then the best case scenario is that the two teams finish tied in the common games. And what’s the next tiebreaker? Why, strength of victory, of course. Perhaps the NFL will change its schedule structure or tiebreaking structure to fix this if it adopts an 18-game schedule, but in the meantime NBC is stuck hoping for effective play-in games, and further that they won’t be dogs like Rams-Seahawks or Broncos-Chargers. Games like Bengals-Jets last year will never find their way to primetime again if this continues – of course, that was a game between teams in different divisions.

Meanwhile, after a couple of years of moving one important-yet-not-quite-primetime-worthy game to the late-afternoon time slot, the NFL just threw the whole lot to the late time slot this year. Now, the AFC West is already locked up and Fox would be stuck with Cardinals-Niners, but I almost think every single game with any conceivable playoff implications got moved to the late time slot, as the NFL seemingly took a cue from the World Cup and went “let’s make sure teams competing for the same spot play at the same time”. The Jags, Packers, Colts, Giants, even Eagles-Cowboys will be played at 4:15 PM ET. The decision not to move Bucs-Saints is actually a little surprising, but I guess they had to have some reason for people to watch Fox in the early time slot.

What do I take from this? I take from this that I need to de-emphasize the “22-20 rule” in future years, something I would prefer to do anyway. And I take from this that in the future, if the NFL continues scheduling Week 17 division games, the Week 17 pick may be a lot simpler than I had been thinking – but the NFL may still find itself with zero options, as I feared the 22-20 rule would leave them with. Imagine, if you will, that the Rams had won just one more game over the course of the season, say Week 1 against the Cardinals, or even Week 2 against the Raiders, and already locked up the NFC West by this point. Now what does the NFL do?

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