Week 17 (January 1):
- Tentative game: LA Rams @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: Effectively flexed out already with the Chargers now maxed out on primetime appearances without it. The Rams’ surprisingly woeful season has sealed its fate.
- Likely protections: Vikings-Packers (CBS) and Saints-Eagles, Jets-Seahawks, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games mentioned on last week’s Watch and their records: Jets (7-7)-Seahawks (7-7), Dolphins (8-6)-Patriots (7-7), Steelers (6-8)-Ravens (9-5), Browns (6-8)-Maroons (7-6-1), Niners (10-4)-Raiders (6-8), Panthers (5-9)-Bucs (6-8).
- Impact of Monday Night Football: Miniscule but not nonexistent; the Rams technically still haven’t been eliminated from the playoffs, and the league’s options are limited enough there’s a slim chance they decide to have this game keep its spot, effectively giving the Chargers a seventh pre-Week 18 primetime appearance a year early. The more relevant factor, at least for when the league might announce a flex, is probably how comfortable CBS is with Vikings-Packers as their standalone late national game.
- Analysis: The NFL has a tough decision to make, as nearly every game got worse; you might think all the losses would cancel each other out and Jets-Seahawks, still only a game worse on one side of the ledger than Dolphins-Patriots but pinned to the late singleheader otherwise, would still have the edge, but neither team looks particularly deserving of a playoff spot at the moment – yet the same could be said of the Patriots after the mess their game ended in. (Did that finish firmly shut the door, if the last two seasons of Brady greatness and Patriot mediocrity didn’t already, on Belichick being in the “greatest of all time” conversation?) The real winner might have been Panthers-Bucs, as the Bucs now only have a one-game lead over the other three teams in the division, the Panthers actually control their own destiny, and even if they lose next week a win over the Bucs would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the league and NBC don’t want to showcase the NFC South tire fire (at least before Week 18), or if Fox would rather keep Panthers-Bucs to anchor its own singleheader, Dolphins-Patriots probably carries the least risk of a team being eliminated from the playoffs by game time otherwise, but barring a crossflex losing Dolphins-Patriots would leave CBS with Steelers-Ravens as their best early game, though the situation isn’t quite as dire as when Eagles-Giants was in a similar situation some weeks back, as the Steelers are at least on the periphery on the playoff picture and Fox has Browns-Maroons, Panthers-Bucs, and now Saints-Eagles available in the early window, with both the Steelers and Browns creeping closer to .500 and staying at least on the periphery of playoff contention this week.Appearing on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” two weeks ago, NFL Vice President of Broadcast Planning Michael North suggested that the Week 18 schedule might not be set until after the Bills-Bengals Monday night game in Week 17, and while that likely applies more to the Sunday afternoon slate (which has been held until after the Monday night game in the past) than the Saturday or Sunday night games, it’s not like the league has much of a history of taking that sort of thing into account when setting the penultimate Sunday night game anyway. With the Bengals holding a game’s lead over the Ravens but the Ravens having won the first matchup between the teams, Ravens-Bengals has a very good chance of deciding the AFC North and may well be off-limits for a move to Saturday with the quick turnaround the Bengals would have, so the league may figure it doesn’t matter what game is on Sunday night when it comes to when they can set the Week 18 schedule, if they even take it into account. But if they do want to minimize the chance of needing to wait for the Sunday night game to set, at minimum, the Saturday games (themselves dependent on the Sunday night game), or even just want to minimize the chances that a team could be eliminated from the playoffs by Sunday night, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pull another six-day hold out of their ass, though that would require deferring the decision to either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day when league officials would really prefer not to have to be working.
If they make the decision now? Jets-Seahawks would be easiest logistically, but if the Jets and Seahawks lose while the Dolphins, Chargers, and Other Washington win next week, there’s a very real chance both teams could be eliminated from the playoffs by Sunday night. A six-day hold would be a signal that the league really wants to keep Jets-Seahawks in contention, in my view. Panthers-Bucs could be an embarrassment and the potential to feature the NFC South two weeks in a row might be a bridge too far for the league and NBC, even if Brady (in the last two games of his career???) would be involved both times, and anchoring the Fox singleheader might be a more fitting fate unless Fox would rather go with Saints-Eagles. Dolphins-Patriots might leave CBS’ cupboard bare in the early window, and if the Packers lose tonight there’s a chance CBS wants to make Dolphins-Patriots their new late feature game, but the Dolphins’ playoff spot is the one the Patriots can more easily steal so the playoff implications are pretty much guaranteed, and Fox, at this point, has no shortage of games they can crossflex to CBS to backfill the early window – assuming Steelers-Ravens isn’t good enough as is.
- Final prediction (if no six-day hold is used): Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots.
- Prediction (if a six-day hold is used): New York Jets @ Seattle Seahawks (if (the Jets win OR no more than one of the Dolphins and Chargers win) AND (the Seahawks win OR Washington loses)), Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (if the Jets-Seahawks scenario doesn’t happen AND the Bucs win AND the Panthers win AND the Falcons lose), Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots (if neither of those scenarios happen). Not marking this as a final prediction because I reserve the right to change it as I look deeper into the Week 18 scenarios (and whether there are games that would be dependent on potential Sunday night candidates), whether Dolphins-Patriots would still be tenable if too many of the Browns, Steelers, Panthers, and Saints lose (my thinking is the scale would tip back to Panthers-Bucs at that point), and whether games involving 6-8 AFC teams could actually be flex candidates given the additional opportunity of a six-day hold.