Obviously the attention of the NFL world in the past two weeks has been focused on Damar Hamlin and the aftermath of his collapse in the first quarter of what was supposed to be a huge Monday night game between the Bills and Bengals. Thankfully his condition is not nearly as bad as was feared at the time, and less than a week after his collapse he was discharged from the hospital and returned to Buffalo with his release from a Buffalo hospital coming only nine days after the incident, and the NFL world seems to be moving on and returning to a semblance of normalcy, even if the NFL did end up imposing some odd contingencies to make up for the pivotal game that ended up being abandoned (though not nearly as odd as some of the proposals for delaying the playoffs that were floating around, including from me). Still, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m diminishing the Hamlin situation or anything. To be sure, certain forms of empathy don’t come as naturally to me as to most people, and I might sometimes come off as indifferent in my reaction to certain tragedies, but I think since writing that post I’ve come to a better understanding of why people react in the way that they do in those sorts of circumstances, maybe a better one than society itself has, and understand why those things have the import they do even if I don’t necessarily feel it myself.
Nonetheless, I also don’t feel that just because of the undeniably unfortunate situation the NFL world has gone through in the last week, that means the league should be off the hook for what they did in the 24 hours before Hamlin collapsed. Because as it turned out, the decision to flex Steelers-Ravens into the preceding Sunday night, which I called potentially the worst flex decision since 2015, was only a prelude to what, before the Sunday night game was even announced, would be the absolute worst flex decision of the entire flex scheduling era, and it’s not even close. Were it not for Hamlin’s collapse and the way the league dealt with it, the NFL’s boneheaded decisions about which games to move to Saturday could have had a material impact on what teams make the playoffs in both conferences (and the Sunday night pick could still have had that impact in the NFC), and it was entirely avoidable.
Understand: in the decade-plus that the league has gone with all division matchups in the final week of the regular season and refrained from giving NBC a tentative game that week, the game that has ended up in that spot has been almost deterministic, constrained by the specific scenarios governing what sort of games can be guaranteed to have the same consequences for the teams involved regardless of what happens earlier in the day. That means either a game for a division title, usually but not always that of the worst division in football, but meaning at minimum the difference between starting the playoffs at home against a wild card team if not after a first-round bye and playing on the road against a division winner; a game for one of the last wild card spots with the winner able to fend off all rivals for the spot; or a game between a team with nothing to play for on the one hand and a team that can clinch a playoff spot with a win but fall behind the winner of another game with a loss. Very rarely has there been anything other than exactly one game that met those criteria, at least by the end of the Sunday night game, and while it’s sometimes been reported that the league considered going with another game that didn’t meet those criteria, in the end sanity has always prevailed and the game meeting those criteria has always been the one that ended up on Sunday night.
Granted a lot of those games have tended to involve the NFC East or North, the two most valuable and attractive divisions in football, so NBC hasn’t exactly been starving for attractive games in “Game 256/272”, but that just means that the NFL has had to overcome Fox wanting those games for themselves, and while there have been some slip-ups, especially early in the era, for the most part the league has taken enough care in setting the rest of the schedule to ensure as many teams in the playoff race as possible still have something to play for when their game kicks off that I was under the impression that choosing a game whose implications didn’t depend on the results earlier in the day, no matter how unlikely those results might seem, was more important than how attractive the game was from a name-team standpoint. The league can indulge itself in picking games based on attractiveness, whether on the field or in terms of fanbases or celebrity, earlier in the season, but for the final week the integrity of the game is more important. (Even in 2014, when the league picked a Bengals-Steelers division title game where both teams ended up making the playoffs over a loser-out Panthers-Falcons division title game, they also passed up a Lions-Packers division title game so the attractiveness of the games wasn’t the sole consideration.)
Is the loser of the Sunday night game the week before guaranteed to play in a division title game, and both of the biggest star quarterbacks in those respective games are injured, and the results earlier in the day ensure one of those division title games is going to happen no matter what? Sure the division title game that’s guaranteed to happen involves the almighty Cowboys, but it’s going to turn out that Aaron Rodgers is going to play while Tony Romo doesn’t, and Bears-Packers is the league’s oldest rivalry, so you can’t tell me that if Bears-Packers was the division title game guaranteed to happen and Cowboys-Eagles wasn’t that the former wouldn’t have been picked even if the Eagles did lose that game. Is the only suitable game a contest between the post-Peyton Colts vs. the Titans for the last wild card spot? It’s going to Sunday night. Is it the 7-8 Rams vs. the 6-9 Seahawks at a time when neither team had any real big stars to speak of and the game was effectively to determine if we would have the first under-.500 division champion in NFL history? It’s going to Sunday night, even though Bears-Packers almost certainly would have been suitable as well. Is it a win-and-in, lose-and-fall-behind-the-winner-of-another-game contest for Washington where the Eagles have already been eliminated and end up bringing out their backup quarterback in the fourth quarter of a winnable game, much to the chagrin of the winner of said other game? It’s not like they would have played it any differently earlier in the day, so onto Sunday night it goes. Is it a game where the winner is in the playoffs and the loser is out, but there’s also a specific situation where both teams could get in if they tie? Close enough, and we don’t have any good alternative, so onto Sunday night it goes.
Are there a number of games that come close to having those sorts of consequences, but none that are completely independent of other results to the point that you can be completely confident of putting them on Sunday night, even if the results that might obviate those consequences might seem incredibly unlikely? Not only is the league willing to go without a Sunday night game entirely, they’re willing to put nine games in the late window, something they’d never do in any other week, just because of all the teams that might be waiting on the outcome of games being played on the West Coast. Talking on the 506sports Discord before the events of this past Sunday, I saw some people claiming that this only happened because Week 17 that year fell on New Year’s Eve, but that doesn’t explain how the afternoon schedule was set up, and it’s not like NBC was able to pivot to showing their “New Year’s Eve Live with Carson Daly” program they had at the time rather than fill the night with reruns. I wasn’t entirely sure the league would do something like that today, but I also felt there was little reason to believe that at the time, they wouldn’t do something like that even if Week 17 didn’t fall on New Year’s Eve. (I didn’t think that at the time, but that was before I saw that NBC was only putting on reruns.)
This was why I questioned the idea of ESPN getting a doubleheader of Saturday games in Week 18, because I was working under the assumption that the league would still at least try to preserve maximum consequences for every team and avoid the risk of a team resting their stars as a result of results earlier in the weekend. Having standalone games before the bulk of the week’s games as opposed to after does open up more possibilities for games that can move into those timeslots, but most of them either involve seeding that the teams in question (and certainly fans) don’t necessarily care about or long-shot teams at the bottom of the tiebreaker order for wild cards, limiting how appealing such games could be. Best case, you get a scenario with multiple games that would be suitable for a move to Sunday night and you can stick one of them on Saturday, or failing that, the Sunday night candidate game is one of those “win-and-in, lose-and-fall-behind-the-winner-of-another-game” situations, and you can stick said “other game” on Saturday. Worst case, you don’t have enough suitable games to fill the time slots, something that’s considerably more likely when you have to fill two spots rather than one, and ESPN either goes without a game or gets a game that could give another team nothing to play for on Sunday.
Last year, the league went with the latter, and ESPN aired a game between the Chiefs and Broncos that could have, and ultimately did, leave the Bengals with nothing to play for on Sunday (unless they cared about whether they got the 3 or 4 seed). But at least the Bengals were playing a Browns team that was already eliminated from the playoffs, so it’s not like if the Bengals rested their starters it would affect who made the playoffs. The most important principle governing the Week 18 schedule remained as it had been: no team could get an unfair advantage in seeding or making the playoffs based on their opponent having their position locked in based on results earlier in the week, and the league had given me no reason to believe that they had abandoned or weakened that principle, or that they would ever violate that principle unless they absolutely had to. Until now.
I will grant that the league was in a bit of a difficult spot. Sunday ended with the Week 18 Sunday night situation no clearer than it was going in: Titans-Jaguars was guaranteed to be for the AFC South, while Ravens-Bengals would hinge on the Monday night game. The Jets losing eliminated Jets-Dolphins, while the Seahawks winning the same game seemingly eliminated Lions-Packers, and then the Ravens lost to the Steelers to keep Ravens-Bengals from being a division title game just yet. Ideally, you’d make Ravens-Bengals the SNF game if it was for the division and give the spot to Titans-Jaguars if not, but if you can’t wait until Monday to announce the Saturday games, that’s not really possible without keeping Titans-Jaguars from being a standalone window. Of course, even with it being for the division the game is low-wattage enough that it’s not like you couldn’t justify sticking it at 1 PM ET if need be, especially with the Jaguars still alive for a wild card spot even with a loss (and, if you wanted to take this into account, the Titans looking completely moribund in recent weeks). The bigger problem was that the league was lacking for Saturday games, though not as much as if the Niners hadn’t come back and beat the Raiders. The Steelers’ win meant Browns-Steelers was a game the Steelers had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, but wouldn’t affect what anyone else in the AFC playoff picture had to play for, and in a situation I didn’t even cover in the Flex Schedule Watch post, the game between Dallas and Washington could have also moved to Saturday if Giants-Eagles was played simultaneously with Cardinals-Niners, meaning the Eagles would still have the 1 seed to play for even if the Cowboys lost and clinched the division for them.
Granted, Giants-Eagles would have to be joined in the late window by Lions-Packers, needing to be played at the same time as Rams-Seahawks, and Patriots-Bills, Jets-Dolphins, and (if it’s not for the division) Ravens-Bengals, needing to be played at the same time as Chiefs-Raiders and (arguably in the Ravens’ case) Chargers-Broncos, meaning eight or nine games in the late window that’s normally supposed to focus on fewer games with more distribution. But as mentioned before, it’s not like a loaded late window is unprecedented. Still, if the league really wanted to move a West Coast game to Saturday to alleviate this situation, they could have moved Cardinals-Niners, allowing the NFC East to play itself out in the early window with the only potential hang-up being that a Niners win would lock the Vikings into the 3 seed. But the league already proved last year that it doesn’t consider the 2 seed to matter as much now that it doesn’t carry with it a first-round bye, and as with the Bengals last year, the Vikings were playing a terrible Bears team so the only thing that might be affected by it would be the draft order.
Instead, the league went with Chiefs-Raiders and Titans-Jaguars.
The first of the two was worse, but its badness plays into what was wrong with Titans-Jaguars so I’m going to cover it first. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the Damar Hamlin situation never happened and the Bills-Bengals game was played to completion. If the Bills had won, the Chiefs and Bills would have been the only two teams that could take the first-round bye and the AFC North winner would have been locked into the 3 seed. If the Chiefs then lost on Saturday, that would lock up the 1 seed for the Bills and give them no reason not to rest their starters against the Patriots… a Patriots team that would clinch a playoff spot with a win, while a loss would open the door for the Dolphins and Steelers. Things are a bit better with a Bengals win, but not by much: the Chiefs would be sitting alone at 13-3 while the Bengals and Bills sit at 12-4, meaning a Chiefs win would clinch the first-round bye for them and leave the Bengals and Bills battling it out for the 2 seed. That might be enough to preserve competitive balance, but even the first scenario should be enough to disqualify Chiefs-Raiders, potentially giving the Patriots an unfair advantage in the race for the last wild card spot.
It’s not like it’s even that much better in allowing games to move to the early window compared to Cardinals-Niners; you could refrain from counting Cowboys-NotIndians and say Giants-Eagles is the only game it would allow to move to the early window, as opposed to Chiefs-Raiders allowing both AFC East games to move early, but if the Bengals won and Ravens-Bengals was placed in the early window, a Ravens loss would lock the Chargers into the 5 seed when they might otherwise have reason to avoid slipping back down to the 6, and while that might not be enough cause for concern in the league offices (it certainly wasn’t in the schedule that was eventually made), if it was the two AFC East games would have to follow Ravens-Bengals into the late window and now you haven’t allowed any games to move to the early window. (And the shitstorm Brandon Staley caught for not resting his starters after the Ravens’ loss clinched the 5 seed for the Chargers suggests the league should have been paying attention to the seeding implications and kept all the relevant AFC games in the late window.)
And this suggested that unlike in 2017, the league wasn’t going to leave NBC without a Sunday night game if there was no suitable option, even if the only reason there’s no suitable option is because the league took one away before finding out for sure if there would be another. Following the late afternoon games, a Jaguars beat writer tweeted that Titans-Jaguars on SNF was “a no-go” and that “wheels [were] in motion for Green Bay”, and in his Football Morning in America column Peter King said his “gut feeling” was that the league would go with Lions-Packers if Ravens-Bengals isn’t for the division. That would be a win-and-in game for the Packers, but the Lions would be eliminated with a Seahawks win, which would be utterly cruel for the Seahawks: the very act of winning the game you need to win gives the team you need help from no reason to provide it. Granted that the Lions were in a similar position as the Steelers were this week, needing help to still have something to play for by game time, and as with the Steelers I’ve heard the argument (including from King) that a team that’s eliminated from the playoffs will still play hard against a division rival. But that isn’t necessarily the case, as we saw with the Washington-Philadelphia game two years ago.
As it happened? Later Monday afternoon, before the Bills-Bengals game even started, the NFL released the full Week 18 schedule and announced that Lions-Packers would be the Sunday night game, regardless of the result of the Bills-Bengals game. Even if it ended up being for the division, that was only going to move Ravens-Bengals to the late afternoon time slot on CBS, up against the race for the NFC East and first-round bye, with the game not being seen at all outside Sunday Ticket in the big markets of New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Still, it was understandable if the league (or the grounds crew at the Bengals’ stadium) was unwilling to hold the Sunday night game dependent on the result of the Monday night game, even if that meant there wasn’t really any reason not to announce the Sunday night game at the end of Steelers-Ravens. But if the NFL wasn’t willing to wait for the end of Bills-Bengals to announce the Sunday night game and give Ravens-Bengals an opportunity to steal the spot, that meant there was no reason not to install Titans-Jaguars as the Sunday night game! The NFL threw away every expectation they’d established for what the final game of the regular season could be, for no good reason!
And look, I’ve seen all the arguments for all of these selections. I’ve seen the argument about how the Titans have looked completely moribund in the last half of the season and were missing Ryan Tannehill, so the game against the Jaguars was looking like a bigger mismatch than the records might have suggested (though as it happened the game pretty much came down to the wire and ended up being decided by a defensive touchdown) and that, coupled with the lack of star power of the teams themselves, would have made it a limp selection for the final game of the regular season on NBC. I saw the argument King made about how the Raiders have been playing feisty and the Chiefs, and their star player Patrick Mahomes, potentially being a win away from clinching home field would have been a juicy storyline that would have popped a bigger rating than Browns-Steelers or Cardinals-49ers.
But again, none of that should have mattered. The NFL can take into account the competitiveness of the games, the name value of the teams and players, and juggling the demands of the various TV partners when scheduling games in the first 17 weeks of the season, but everything they’d done since going to all division games in the final week suggested that when it comes down to the final weekend, everything else gets sacrificed for preserving the sanctity of competition. There was the occasional slip-up, but for the most part, there was no risking that the Bills will rest their players with the #1 seed locked up and pave the way for the Patriots to make the playoffs, no risking that the Seahawks would find themselves rooting for a team with nothing but pride to play for on Sunday night to salvage their own playoff hopes. I can accept that the league could give NBC or ESPN the more attractive games if there were multiple suitable choices for those time slots, and I could accept the choice of Lions-Packers or even Chiefs-Raiders if the league really had no other choice, but they didn’t. They ran the risk of the wild card teams in each conference being determined by teams with nothing to play for when they didn’t need to, simply because of such pedestrian concerns as what would pop a better rating – and I’m not even sure Chiefs-Raiders, the worse of the two selections, was that much better of a choice even from a ratings standpoint than Cardinals-49ers, especially with the latter being J.J. Watt’s final game. I can’t overstate how much of an absolute betrayal it felt like to see the league sacrifice competitive balance on the altar of the almighty dollar and the almighty rating that brings it. You were the chosen one! You were supposed to destroy teams having nothing to play for, not create them! Bring balance to the final week, not leave it in darkness!
Aside from Ravens-Bengals not being played in the same window as Chargers-Broncos, the rest of the Week 18 slate largely adhered to that principle of competitive balance, but in the light of the games picked to be played in those standalone windows, that’s a bit like Mrs. Lincoln saying that the play was fine aside from that one little interruption. I’m honestly not sure why we even still have all division games in the final week if the league is going to throw away the reason for it so carelessly and needlessly. I can’t even say the Saturday doubleheader is a mistake anymore; now it feels like the league created it with the full understanding that competitive balance isn’t as sacred anymore if the league can wring more money out of the TV partners without it. If it were just Lions-Packers, I could go on about how the Monday night game in the penultimate week, which has tripped up the league trying to make a schedule for the final week before, officially became a problem this year and while it’s admirable that the league is trying to get ESPN some better matchups they probably shouldn’t be “two of the best teams in the AFC” good that week, and if they are the teams playing in that game shouldn’t be playing in games matching up the two teams in their respective divisions with the highest win totals in the final week, and maybe something more like the #1 and #3 teams would most avoid a potential SNF candidate being dependent on or ruled out by the Monday night game, but what would the point be when in their eyes, that might be as much of a feature as a bug?
Almost from the moment the NFL went to all division games in the final week, one of my commenters has been beating the drum for the league to schedule all games in each conference at the same time in the final week, perhaps with the AFC games in the late afternoon and the NFC games in primetime, adopting a version of the system used in European soccer leagues that has also been taken up stateside in recent years by MLS and Major League Baseball (with even the NBA quietly scheduling the last day of the regular season the same way), with every game being nationally televised across the four broadcast networks and their associated cable networks. This person has been known to produce ideas and theories so wildly outlandish that normally his vouching for an idea is a major point against it, and the component of this idea where each of the cable games would be simulcast on subchannel networks that normally air low-rated old reruns, are often only available in SD, and sometimes aren’t even owned by the companies airing them on their stations, when he admits that the cable games would still air on the main networks in the markets of the teams involved taking away the only possible argument for such an arrangement given how cable games and the Week 18 schedule work now, is obvious nonsense, and I’m honestly not sure the league would go for nationally televising every game in general and effectively cut Sunday Ticket out of the final week, but the basics of the idea make enough sense (and it’s been proposed by people with significantly more sanity) that I’ve become somewhat enamored of it over the years, even at one point letting myself wonder if the league might actually adopt a version of it in its next TV contracts. (Perhaps each network can take a division in each conference for them to air both games from, and CBS’ cable games can air on NFL Network?) But I understand the reasons why the league and its TV partners wouldn’t want to adopt that system, and I’ll admit that the way Week 18 works now, with games spread out across five windows all weekend long, makes it feel like more of an event than cramming all the games into two windows would.
At this point, though, not adopting such a system feels like the height of arrogance and greed on the part of the National Football League. Most sports leagues the world over have recognized the importance of ensuring teams have as much to play for as possible on the last day of play. The NFL pays lip service to such a goal, and in the past was surprisingly good at securing it under the circumstances, but has made apparent that it is at best secondary to the cause of the almighty dollar and maximizing ratings. If the sorts of games that could move to Saturday are too low-wattage to be worth it to ESPN, if you’re even willing to compromise on the sorts of games that can air on NBC if the options available to you aren’t satisfactory, if it’s so important that there be fewer games played in the late afternoon than at 1 PM ET as to all but require a West division game be played in a standalone window (and/or that the Chiefs play at home on a regular basis) even if none are suitable for the purpose and then choose a bad game even given those constraints, why aren’t we scheduling every game in each conference to be played at the same time? NBC and ABC/ESPN can take a game each from each conference, with the remaining six games in each conference to be split between CBS and Fox so Sunday Ticket remains happy. NBC and ESPN may not get their windows to themselves, but you get four games airing fully nationally (compared to three now) and the teams involved in those games can be as popular as the networks want them to be, without compromising competitive integrity. You don’t even need to schedule them for the same day; you could schedule the AFC for Saturday night and the NFC for Sunday afternoon if you want to. Whatever benefits the networks get from the current system no longer seem like they’re worth the potential competitive consequences.
I was already wondering if I could continue with the Flex Schedule Watch if I didn’t get a lot more details about how flex scheduling was going to work under the new contract than are now extant, and now the Watch is very much on life support. (It would perhaps be too much in bad taste to say it collapsed on the field when the Week 18 schedule was released and the medical staff is trying to resuscitate it and performing CPR… too late.) I don’t want to abandon it; it’s the one part of Da Blog that has been the most productive the past few years, engaging my brain and giving me something productive to work on in the fall months, and it’s the one part of Da Blog that’s attracted a substantial audience over the course of its history, with people praising me for my ability to bring clarity to flex scheduling situations and identify and predict the most likely games to be flexed, but I can’t predict what games are going to be flexed if the NFL decides that everything’s made up and the games don’t matter. At the very minimum, I’m probably going to have to dispense with percentage chances for specific Week 18 Sunday night games after Week 15, and all I’ll be able to say about games in the Week 16 post is that they should move to Saturday or Sunday night if the given situations happen, not that they will. Frankly, week-in-advance flexes, which appear to be becoming a formal component of SNF in the last few weeks starting next season, might be impossible to predict more generally, at least before the week’s games are played, if they aren’t deterministic. I don’t have any way of knowing the degree to which the league might balance actual competitive integrity against simply popping a rating for NBC or ESPN, and that makes actual predictions, as opposed to mere opinions, a futile endeavor. I may be in a particularly unique position, but if the league has decided that ratings are more important than competitive integrity, that may actively take away the main thing motivating me to follow the league on a week-in, week-out basis.
I’d like to think the fact that the league has taken considerable criticism over its Lions-Packers scheduling, to the point that Mike Tirico seemingly felt the need to defend it late in the game, will result in them going back to taking better care in putting together the Week 18 schedule in future years, but the fact that they got away with it this time might just embolden them further going forward. Already the league followed up its strange Week 17 and 18 schedules with a questionable schedule for Wild Card weekend, with Cowboys-Bucs on Monday and Seahawks-Niners on Saturday, meaning if the Niners and Giants win – very possible – the Niners could have a two-day rest advantage over their opponents on divisional weekend, raising the question of why the league wouldn’t simply give Chargers-Jaguars to ESPN if Fox really didn’t want to (or straight-up couldn’t) air an AFC game on Saturday… and that isn’t nearly as weird as what might have happened if the Packers won on Sunday night, which apparently could have resulted in Packers-Niners airing on ESPN, which would seem to go against the league’s own stated principles for setting the wild card schedule in the age of the Monday night wild card game, seemingly requiring that game to be a 4/5 game so that the divisional round schedule can be set by the end of Sunday night with a minimum of contingencies to be planned for and so teams can know who they’re playing as soon as possible. (A different game might be acceptable starting next season, when it becomes possible for both divisional games in each conference to be scheduled for the same day, but this year, with Fox airing both NFC games presumably requiring them to be split between Saturday and Sunday, it doesn’t seem like it should be a viable option.)
My concerns on the matter may seem somewhat nerdy, and the league may consider the complaints of fans to be mere noise, but it should pay attention to the accusations that it intentionally manipulated the schedule to benefit the Patriots and Packers. If fans of less popular teams start to wonder if the playoff field is akin to pro wrestling, could it result in fans starting to disengage from the outcomes of games and the playoff race? And if that still isn’t enough to worry the league, consider the effect teams resting starters when they might not have if results earlier in the weekend had gone a different way might have on gambling in the final weekend, in the still-young age of sports betting being legal in every state that wants it to be. With the league now having official sports betting partners, can it afford to frustrate those partners’ customers in such a way? Or do they start wondering if some of the outcomes of games or playoff races are fixed as well?