Since 2006, the league has been using a flexible schedule on Sunday nights to ensure that a competitive and interesting game always will occupy the prime-time slot. In most weeks of flex scheduling, the decision comes at least 12 days before the games are played. For Week 17, the decision usually is made after the full Week 16 slate of games has been played, and it’s unveiled no later than six days before the final Sunday.
Unlike all other weeks of flexible scheduling, no game has even tentatively been placed in the 8:20 p.m. ET time slot. Instead, all games have a 1:00 p.m. or 12:00 p.m. local time kickoff (for three games due to start at 4:15 p.m. ET, it’s a 1:15 p.m. local start), and the NFL will choose one of those 16 games to be the final act of the regular season, since no Monday night game is played in Week 17.
The goal every year becomes finding a game with clear playoff implications that can’t be resolved based on the outcomes of games played earlier in the day. And that’s not always an easy thing to do.
Last year, only the Seahawks and Rams provided a clear-cut pre-playoff game, with the winner capturing the NFC West and the loser being bounced from the postseason field — regardless of the final score of any other game played that day.
This year, a game with obvious playoff implications regardless of what happens elsewhere could be hard to find. Here’s a quick glance at the potential relevance of each game.
Redskins at Eagles: Since Philly’s shot at winning the NFC East would hinge (if it survives Week 16) on the Giants beating the Cowboys, this game could be irrelevant.
Lions at Packers: Green Bay’s clinching of the top seed, if they don’t have it after this weekend, would come if the 49ers lose to the Rams in Week 17. Also, losses by other teams would deliver a Detroit playoff berth, if Detroit doesn’t clinch it this weekend. Then again, whether the Packers have the No. 1 or No. 2 seed really isn’t that big of a deal in the grander scheme of things.
Ravens at Bengals: Depending on the Week 16 games, this game could have implications for the AFC North title, the No. 2 seed, and the final wild-card berth. But those implications could become irrelevant based on the other games played in Week 17, which makes this game less attractive for prime time.
Jets at Dolphins: Again, Week 16 will provide more clarity. With the Jets and Bengals each 8-6, however, it’s unlikely that the Jets will have a clear win-and-in, lose-and-leave scenario that would apply regardless of what the Bengals do against the Ravens.
Panthers at Saints: New Orleans could be playing for the No. 2 seed and/or the NFC South crown, but those could be decided via losses earlier in the day by the Falcons or the 49ers.
Buccaneers at Falcons: If the Falcons still haven’t clinched a playoff berth after Monday night, losses by others could deliver the spot earlier in the day on January 1.
49ers at Rams: San Fran is jockeying for the No. 2 or No. 1 seed, which if still relevant after Week 16 could be completely irrelevant before 8:20 p.m. ET in Week 17.
Bills at Patriots: The Pats are playing for the top seed, but the outcomes of the Steelers and Ravens games could strip this one of any remaining relevance.
Colts at Jaguars: It’s very highly unlikely that the league would want to showcase the “Suck for Luck” finale. In 2008, for example, the NFL had no interest in televising in prime time the Lions’ date with 0-16 destiny.
Titans at Texans: Houston has an outside shot at a bye, but it will depend on the Steelers and Ravens games from earlier in the day.
Bears at Vikings: This one would be attractive in prime time only for anyone who stayed up too late and drank too much on New Year’s Eve and doesn’t want to miss anything important.
Cowboys at Giants: If the Giants beat the Jets on Saturday, the NFC East likely will hinge on this game, with the loser most likely being done. It could be one of the best candidates for the prime-time slot, based on the clarity provided by Week 16.
Steelers at Browns: Um, no.
Chiefs at Broncos: The Broncos definitely will win the AFC West by beating the Chiefs. The only problem is that the Broncos could nail it down before 8:20 p.m. ET on January 1, making the game irrelevant.
Seahawks at Cardinals: It could be one of the best games of the day. But it very likely will have zero relevance to the postseason.
Chargers at Raiders: With the Broncos able to win the division by beating the Chiefs, there’s no reason to hold this one — unless somehow it would present a clear-cut win-and-in for a wild-card berth for one of the two teams.
And so, for now, it appears that the best candidates are Cowboys-Giants and Chiefs-Broncos. We’ll know more by Monday night.
In the end, there’s a chance that the NFL will simply have to assume a calculated risk that one or more of the outcomes earlier in the day will screw up the New Year’s Night party on NBC.
UPDATE 10:04 a.m. ET: For those of you who have asked via Twitter or otherwise, CBS and FOX cannot protect games in Week 17. But, as we all learned a few weeks ago, the failure or inability to protect a game doesn’t mean they won’t try.