Between three primetime packages, a handful of Monday Night doubleheaders, international games, Saturday games, tripleheaders on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a game on Black Friday, by the time the season ends the NFL will have presented 74 games in standalone windows, over a quarter of all the games being played, before even getting into the games being shown in the featured late afternoon windows on CBS and Fox. Yet even with all of that, there are still some great games being left to languish in obscurity, buried in the early afternoon window or even the late singleheader window, where your ability to watch the game will be dependent on the luck of the draw. Here are the best games that aren’t currently scheduled for any primetime or other standalone window and aren’t slated to be a lead 4:25 ET game.
Houston Texans @ Carolina Panthers (Week 8, 1pm ET, Fox SH)
Every year, various lists of the best games of the upcoming season will routinely include games pitting two recent high draft picks at quarterback, but the teams that drafted such players are usually terrible enough that no network in their right mind would waste one of their featured windows on such a game. Until this year, such a game would have been perfect for Thursday Night Football, which has to show every team no matter how terrible they are, but only last year did Amazon show such a matchup of high draft picks between the Jaguars and Jets. That game, played a couple days before Christmas, proved to be stronger than expected with both teams making surprising playoff pushes, but the Jets were in the midst of collapsing down the stretch with Zach Wilson being benched in the game, and the Jags came out on top 19-3, with Amazon posting one of the weaker viewership numbers of the season. Now that TNF can show some teams twice, it doesn’t have to showcase terrible teams like the Texans, one of four teams slated for no primetime games, but it’s still disappointing that if you don’t have Sunday Ticket, your ability to see C.J. Stroud (and Will Anderson) vs. Bryce Young will be dependent on whether Fox deigns to show it in your area in a six-game singleheader week.
New England Patriots @ New York Jets (Week 3, 1pm ET, CBS SH)
If you ask a sportsbook, the Jets are expected to be a full two wins better than the Patriots, 9.5 to 7.5, with the Pats expected to finish last in the division, but don’t tell that to Jets fans; the Gang Green haven’t beaten the Patriots since 2015, the longest active losing streak by a single team to a single opponent, a streak that includes six games where the Jets didn’t have to worry about Tom Brady and doesn’t include the Butt Fumble. The Bills and Dolphins may be the teams the Jets are most fighting for supremacy in the division, but a win against the Pats would be what tastes sweetest; we’ll see if Aaron Rodgers will be the one to break the streak. This one ranks so low because a) it mostly matters to Jets fans more than general NFL fans and b) it’s likely to be CBS’ top game of the day anyway.
New York Jets @ Denver Broncos (Week 5, 4:25pm ET, CBS DH)
Despite being in the late doubleheader window, this qualifies for the list because CBS’ featured game should be the Chiefs and Vikings, but while it’s understandable that CBS would feature the Chiefs whenever possible, and the Vikings should contend for the playoffs, this game has a simple, compelling storyline: two quarterbacks that spent forever with a single team each now find themselves in unfamiliar places. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson butted heads more than a few times in Green Bay and Seattle, from the “fail mary” to their NFC Championship Game meeting, and now they meet on the AFC side of the ledger, playing for teams looking for a pick-me-up. As Broncos fans learned last year, there’s no guarantee either of these teams will be competitive, but it should still be an attractive enough matchup to carry a featured window.
Detroit Lions @ Los Angeles Chargers (Week 10, 4:05pm ET, CBS SH)
The Lions had a hard charge to finish last year that finished just short of the playoffs, raising expectations considerably for this year, and they have a relatively weak schedule to boot. But between the season-opening kickoff game against the Chiefs and their Monday night showdown against the Cowboys in the season’s penultimate week, their most prominent games are against mediocre teams like the Packers and Raiders; their biggest tests after the Chiefs and Cowboys, namely the Ravens and Chargers, are stuck in singleheader windows, and the matchup that could decide the division against the Vikings will have its return match in Week 18 while the first game between the teams gets an early doubleheader window on Christmas Eve. (I’d certainly expect the Vikings to be a more competitive Thanksgiving matchup than the Packers could end up being.) The Ravens could be the second-best opponent the Lions have, but the Chargers game is a particular standout because the late singleheader window has naturally limited distribution due to the need to protect the doubleheader, meaning Packers-Steelers, a game likely to have significantly less meaning, will probably be getting more love.
Seattle Seahawks @ Detroit Lions (Week 2, 1pm ET, Fox SH)
Or maybe this could have been the Lions’ Thanksgiving game – or, since the Seahawks are already playing on Thanksgiving, the Thursday night game the following week. Last year the Seahawks knocked off the Rams in the final game of the regular season, then watched as a Lions team their win had just knocked out of the playoffs nonetheless beat the Packers to send the Seahawks to the playoffs and end Aaron Rodgers’ career in Green Bay. The Seahawks went to the playoffs thanks to a thrilling 48-45 takedown of the Lions back in Week 4, and their matchup this year could have playoff implications once again. These two teams snuck up on the rest of the league last year, but they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year – except, apparently, the schedulemakers.
Any Atlanta Falcons game
The Falcons are one of four teams with no primetime appearances whatsoever, and only two games are scheduled for time slots other than 1 PM ET on a Sunday afternoon. Yet, it’s not like they’re expected to be terrible: their win total at sportsbooks is around 8.5, so they’re as likely to finish above .500 as below it, and the NFC is weak enough that if they hit the over they could well sneak into the playoffs. The Falcons are slated to play the Jaguars at Wembley and their trip to Carolina has been reserved for a potential move to Saturday in Week 15, but you’d think they’d be more deserving of the primetime love being showered on, say, the Raiders, who have five primetime games, plus the early game on Christmas Day, despite a win total that’s a game worse. The most obvious choice for a more featured window would be their showdowns with the Saints that could end up deciding the division; their trip to the Big Easy is slated for Week 18 and could yet end up on ESPN or NBC, but the Saints’ Week 12 visit to Atlanta is just an ordinary early singleheader game. The week after that, they head to New Jersey to take on Aaron Rodgers and the Jets in what should admittedly be the most prominent game of the early doubleheader window. More subtly, their Week 9 visit from the Vikings could well decide the last wild card in the NFC, yet is likely to be overshadowed in Fox’s early doubleheader window by Rams-Packers. Any of those could have been perfectly fine choices to put on a Monday or Thursday night.
New England Patriots @ Las Vegas Raiders (Week 6, 4:05pm ET, CBS SH)
Despite an expected win total of about 7.5, the Raiders are slated for a whopping five primetime appearances, plus their trip to Arrowhead is slated to be the early game of the Christmas tripleheader. There is a compelling storyline involved with Josh McDaniels as head coach and Jimmy Garoppolo joining the team, but that should still be material for two or three standalone windows at best, not six. It’s especially head-scratching because the Raiders game with the most compelling storyline isn’t one of them. Patriots-Raiders was already compelling after the inexplicable ending of the game between the teams last year, but it’s all the more so now with two Belichick pupils at coach and QB slated to go up against The Hoodie, yet it’s trapped in the late singleheader window rather than being a Monday or Thursday night showdown, while teams like the Jets waste primetime appearances against them and their other primetime games are against random opponents like the Lions. Perhaps if the game were in Foxboro it would be more compelling to the networks and league?
Miami Dolphins @ Los Angeles Chargers (Week 1, 4:25pm ET, CBS DH)
CBS has a trio of monster matchups in its late window to kick off the season. Its lead game is expected to be Eagles-Patriots, Robert Kraft’s much-vaunted “Tom Brady day”, but frankly I would have preferred to start the Patriots on the road and have their home opener be the Week 2 Sunday night game against the Dolphins. That might not make CBS happy, but as things stand they’re burying two alternatives that should be getting better recognition. Raiders-Broncos is a showdown of two teams with prominent new coaches and a potential litmus test over whether last year was a blip in Russell Wilson’s career or the start of an inexorable decline Sean Payton can’t stop, but the real prize is Dolphins-Chargers, a showdown of two hot young quarterbacks. Both teams’ win totals at sportsbooks are at 9.5, good enough to tie for the third-best among teams not favored to win their division, meaning at the end of the season this game could well end up deciding which team goes to the playoffs.
New York Jets @ New York Giants (Week 8, 1pm ET, CBS DH)
It’s been a long time since there was this much hope for both New York teams – you probably have to go back to the days when Eli Manning was the bane of the Patriots dynasty’s existence and Mark Sanchez led the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games, and even that might be questionable. But Daniel Jones managed to get the Giants not only into the playoffs but to pick up a win as well, and they could contend for a playoff spot again in a weak NFC, while everyone knows about the hype for Aaron Rodgers’ arrival in the Big Apple. The Rams and Chargers were slated for a Sunday night matchup before the Rams’ disappointing season got it flexed out, so the league is perfectly willing to put an in-city rivalry in primetime if circumstances warrant, but instead this game gets an early doubleheader window with Patriots-Dolphins taking away a decent chunk of AFC East territory.
Miami Dolphins @ Buffalo Bills (Week 4, 1pm ET, CBS SH)
At first glance the Dolphins’ three primetime games, plus a Black Friday showdown with the Jets and a trip to Germany to face the Chiefs, reflect their 9.5-game win total at sportsbooks. But the Dolphins are playing a loaded schedule in a loaded division, and Tua Tagovailoa is one of the league’s more marketable young quarterbacks, so they could easily punch above their weight in terms of games in featured windows. Both their trips to Buffalo and their hosting the Jets are trapped in 1 PM ET windows, but both should be the premier games of their windows and the return matchups are either already being featured (the aforementioned Black Friday game) or have the potential to be (the Bills come down to South Florida in Week 18). Still, you’d think a game between two teams that met three times last season in games decided by a combined eight points can do better than a lead singleheader game.
Miami Dolphins @ Baltimore Ravens (Week 17, 1pm ET, CBS DH)
But the Dolphins’ New Year’s Eve trip to Baltimore is what’s truly emblematic of the level of respect, or lack thereof, the league has shown to both teams; you wouldn’t think that of the Ravens with four primetime appearances, all against good teams, and an international game, but this isn’t the highest-ranked game they have on the list, and this game could get a big bite taken out of it, especially in the rest of the AFC East, by Patriots-Bills in the same window. With Bengals-Chiefs as CBS’ late doubleheader game, could this game be flexed in if the Packers struggle too much in their first year with Jordan Love as “the guy”?
Kansas City Chiefs @ Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 2, 1pm ET, CBS DH)
The Chiefs and Jaguars didn’t quite have the best game of last year’s divisional round, but it was still a one-score game where the Chiefs managed to hold off a furious comeback from the Jags despite Patrick Mahomes being injured in the first half. Naturally, despite the Jags having about the sixth-highest win total in the league, the NFL has rewarded them with a Week 2 early doubleheader showdown that might not be the most compelling game in the same window on the same network, preventing Jim Nantz and Tony Romo from calling every Chiefs game CBS has as Nantz has hinted. The Chiefs do have a loaded schedule that would make it difficult to put every great opponent they have in featured windows, but they can do better than the Raiders on Christmas.
San Francisco 49ers @ Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 10, 1pm ET, Fox DH)
Higher-ranked than Chiefs-Jaguars because the Niners, unlike the Chiefs, start the season with less than six primetime appearances, so this game could have more easily been scheduled for a primetime window. This despite the fact it’s not quite clear who the Niners’ quarterback will be. The Jags do get primetime games against the Bengals, Ravens, and… Saints… plus of course their London games against the Falcons and Bills, but should they really be getting featured games against NFC South teams considering some of the games they have elsewhere on the slate?
Baltimore Ravens @ Cincinnati Bengals (Week 2, 1pm ET, CBS DH)
Cincinnati is tied for the highest win total at sportsbooks with 11.5; Baltimore’s total ranges from 10.5 to 9.5 depending on the book, which would put them roughly in seventh place (the Jags have the same range but have more books with higher totals) and the highest total not to be tops in the division. If Lamar Jackson can stay healthy, his showdown with Joe Burrow’s Bengals could be the premier in-division rivalry in the league for a long time to come. The matchup in Baltimore is slated for Thursday night in Week 11, but not only is their Week 2 matchup, when Jackson will have had less time to get injured, slated for the early doubleheader window, it has to share space with the Chiefs-Jaguars game mentioned earlier. A game that could have major playoff implications could end up being seen by less than a third of the country, depending on how much distribution CBS wants to give Chiefs-Jags.