Week 6 (October 13):
- Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: 0-3 v. 2-2. As with last year’s early flex, I was surprised this game was picked to begin with, simply because I thought the league would stay far, far away from featuring a game at tiny Dignity Health Sports Park with mostly visiting fans in the stands in primetime, with it even more likely to be an effective Steeler home game given the Steelers’ national fanbase. Ben Roethlisberger’s injury makes this all the more of a chintzy proposition, and the case for flexing this game out would have been more straightforward had the Chargers lost and the tentative came in to this post with one win between the teams. Instead, it’s possible the Chargers aren’t chopped liver but this isn’t necessarily a blowout in the making either (especially given, again, the lack of home-field advantage and the possibility the Steelers still win Monday night), making this a telling experiment in just how hopeless a game needs to be to pull the early flex, especially given the lack of games not involving 2-2 teams.
- Possible alternatives and their records: CBS: Texans (2-2)-Chiefs (4-0), Saints (3-1)-Jaguars (2-2). FOX: Seahawks (3-1)-Browns (2-2), Eagles (2-2)-Vikings (2-2), 49ers (3-0)-Rams (3-1).
- Impact of Monday Night Football: The Steelers have a chance to put a win on the board, which could be critical for the tentative’s chances to keep its spot.
- Predicted protections: Texans-Chiefs (CBS). For Fox, see below.
- Analysis: Niners-Rams is clearly the best game on the current slate in terms of records, would be the most straightforward game to swap out for another game in LA, and is currently mired in 4:05 singleheader purgatory. (With byes and a London game on NFL Network, both CBS and Fox have only three games in the early slot, so flexing in any other game could require moving the only East Coast game currently in the late time slot – Cowboys-Jets, itself a game of questionable value with the Jets nursing their own 0-3 record, albeit one pitting the biggest market against the biggest name – to the early slot and crossflexing Niners-Rams to CBS to serve as the new main doubleheader game.) The question is whether the league can “convince” Fox not to protect it; it’s not clear it would be Fox’s first choice to protect in any case, as they might lean more towards their third-best game in Eagles-Vikings that involves their two most favorite divisions. What could be a bigger problem is that the return match at Levi’s Stadium is one of the games that could move to Saturday in Week 16, and that would, presumably, count as the Rams’ sixth primetime appearance. That might preclude the league from adding a potential seventh. (Also, we have seen the league be reticent to take away both halves of a division matchup from the normal Sunday afternoon partner, but as mentioned any other flex might require this game to be crossflexed to CBS anyway, and in any case Fox would still produce the Week 16 game on NFL Network and presumably distribute it to its own stations.)
So the question becomes whether a 3-1 v. 2-2 game beats 1-3 or 0-4 v. 2-2. (Well, unless CBS wants to protect Cowboys-Jets even with the Jets playing as poorly as they are and let the league flex in Texans-Chiefs, though that would max the Chiefs out on primetime appearances.) Whether the Steelers win Monday night could make all the difference there: one scenario produces a tentative only one game worse on each side than the best alternatives involving a Steelers team only a game out of the division lead even at 1-3, while the other is an 0-4 team without its biggest star that just handed the Bengals their first win of the season (though the Steelers were at least competitive in their first full Big Ben-less game at Levi’s Stadium). In terms of which game gets flexed in, Seahawks-Browns is clearly the more attractive game (especially with the Saints still dealing with their own star quarterback’s injury, and being a much less attractive name without their star quarterback than the Steelers) but that would max the Seahawks out on primetime appearances; on the other hand, it’s not clear we’re going to have another flex the entire rest of the season. If we do, though, there’s a very real possibility Vikings-Chargers Week 15 gets flexed out for Seahawks-Panthers; the Chiefs play the winless Broncos that week, so if the NFL is willing to max a team out (and Niners-Rams isn’t an option; the Rams play the Cowboys in the current main DH game on Fox that week, so that’s a mortal lock to be protected if the Rams aren’t already maxed out) Texans-Chiefs could be the safer bet.
I should note that Athletic Bay Area writer Steve Berman apparently wrote on Friday that Niners-Rams was “highly likely” to be flexed in. I don’t have an Athletic subscription, I’m not willing to give iTunes my payment information as would be necessary to sign up for the Athletic’s free trial on their mobile app or give the Athletic payment information I don’t intend to use, and in any case I don’t want to start the only free trial I’d ever get to read one article I probably wouldn’t get much from, so I don’t know if that was based on inside information or was pure speculation, but if the former it at least suggests the Week 16 situation doesn’t completely override the prospect of flexing in Niners-Rams (and it’s not like the league has a history of looking that far ahead anyway).
- Final prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers @ Los Angeles Chargers (no change) (if the Steelers win tonight), Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs (if the Steelers lose tonight and CBS protects Cowboys-Jets), Seattle Seahawks @ Cleveland Browns (if the Steelers lose tonight and the NFL wants to keep Rams-Niners as an option to flex to NFLN Week 16), San Francisco 49ers @ Los Angeles Rams (if the Steelers lose tonight and the NFL doesn’t care about the Week 16 return match being on NFLN or is willing to bend their own rules to let it happen).