Week 15 (December 17-18):
- Tentative SNF game: New England (6-6) @ Las Vegas (5-7). On the one hand the Raiders won again, but on the other hand the Pats didn’t exactly look ready for prime time in a listless Thursday night loss to the Bills. Apparently if this game were to be flexed out, it would force the Las Vegas Bowl the previous day into an afternoon timeslot, but considering that even before the season these teams were only expected to be around .500, it seems like it would have been a better choice for a Monday night game than Sunday night.
- Tentative CBS 4:25 game: Cincinnati (8-4) @ Tampa Bay (5-6).
- 3 of these games to be moved to Saturday on NFL Network: Dolphins (8-4)-Bills (9-3), Ravens (8-4)-Browns (5-7), Colts (4-8-1)-Vikings (10-2), Falcons (5-8)-Saints (4-8), Giants (7-4-1)-Riveras (7-5-1).
- Likely protections: Probably Titans-Chargers (CBS) and Cowboys-Jaguars, Eagles-Bears, or nothing (FOX).
- Impact of Monday Night Football: A Saints win would tie them with the Falcons only a half-game back of the NFC South, giving the game between them potentially huge divisional implications. A Saints loss, by contrast, would give the Bucs a game-and-a-half lead with the Saints another game behind that, giving Falcons-Saints much less juice. On the other hand, the Bucs getting back to .500 would make whether or not I’m correct about the protections a matter of paramount importance.
- Analysis: As mentioned on last week’s Watch, I was ridiculed on the 506sports Discord for daring to suggest that CBS might have protected Titans-Chargers over Bengals-Bucs at all, let alone that they “probably” did so, but I don’t think we’d have been hearing about a potential Saturday game moving to Sunday night these last few weeks if Titans-Chargers were available (though all the factors leading to Dolphins-Chargers being flexed in the previous week suggests the league may have felt that was a more important Chargers game to flex in than the Titans). My view is that putting a potential Saturday game on Sunday night is only really worth it if the worst game going to NFLN would still be better than putting the Raiders on; NBC’s rights fees are more valuable to the league than games on NFL Network, but there’s still a question of whether the overall set of games getting national exposure is a net positive (though I did have it suggested to me that NFLN really only needs a single “anchor” game to prop up the rest of the slate), and the Raiders getting overtime wins the last two weeks, including against a team currently in the playoffs with the best home field advantage in the NFL, and following that up against a divisional opponent with playoff hopes of their own, suggests Patriots-Raiders may not be the disaster it was looking like earlier in the year. I’m actually not sure the game would be flexed out for Bengals-Bucs even if the Bucs win tonight; the Bucs would have the same record as the Patriots and only a game better record than the Raiders, and their game would technically be more lopsided. The problem, though, is that the Patriots may not necessarily be holding up their end of the bargain, even though they still technically have a better record than the Raiders.
The Browns won to get to the same record as the Raiders, but their game with the Ravens looks to be more lopsided, and if the Bucs win tonight that would be only the second Saturday game if one of them gets flexed in to Sunday night. A Saints win might make the league feel better about flexing in one of the Saturday games, but I’m not sure it makes them feel all that great. Moreover, the league might not be able to wait for after the Monday night game to make decisions about which games get flexed to Saturday, though it sounds like they could announce the slate during the Monday night game (and they might be able to announce Saturday games conditional on the Monday night game, something they’ve done for Sunday night games in the past). As far as which game gets flexed in, I could honestly see it going either way; the Dolphins lost to put them a game back of the Bills and creep the game closer to the NFC East tilt, which would now determine which team would win a tiebreaker that would likely be just the two of them… but there’s also a question of whether we want to showcase a game that could just slog its way to a tie again. I’d still be inclined to pick the NFC East game, but I’m not as confident about it.
That’s especially the case because before the Sunday slate even started, someone uncovered an FCC request for a satellite uplink in Buffalo that included “NBC NFL SNF” as one of the dates for it to be used. Seems odd for the decision to be made that early and without publicly announcing it, but I’m almost tempted to go with that, because I could honestly see any of four games ending up on Sunday night otherwise. Leaving that aside, what may end up being the determining factor is that Patriots-Raiders is another West Coast game that can only go in the late afternoon window, and if it ends up going to CBS, the network it would “normally” go to and the one that, as the doubleheader network, has more need for games, it would enter an already crowded late DH window unless Bengals-Bucs either moves to the early window or gets flexed into SNF. If one of the Saturday games gets flexed to SNF, I would look for Patriots-Raiders to be “crossflexed” to Fox’s late singleheader.
- Final prediction for SNF: Cincinnati Bengals @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (if unprotected or CBS is convinced to give it up, and the Bucs win tonight), New England Patriots @ Las Vegas Raiders (no change) (if not).
- Final prediction for Saturday: New York Giants @ Washington Commanders (8 PM ET), Miami Dolphins @ Buffalo Bills (4:30 PM ET), Atlanta Falcons @ New Orleans Saints (1 PM ET, if the Saints win tonight), Baltimore Ravens @ Cleveland Browns (1 PM ET, if the Saints lose tonight or the league really can’t make the game dependent on the result of the Monday night game). (If the Saints lose and a Saturday game gets plugged into SNF, my first instinct is to go with Colts-Vikings over Falcons-Saints for the third Saturday game, even though it’s badly lopsided, as a game with playoff implications for one team at least. But I could see the league thinking differently, especially with the likelihood of the Vikings clinching the division this week, and if they can’t wait for the Monday night result I would expect them to go with Falcons-Saints in the late afternoon window, justified with the Saints being on Central time.)