Here we stand, yet again, at the precipice of a new season: 32 teams, 256 games, countless unknown possibilities.
We knew every team’s opponents the minute the regular season ended last January, and we got the details when the full scheduled was unveiled in April. So there’s been plenty of time to dissect the 2017 slate, and we’ve already mapped out the best games of the year—revenge games, rivalry games, primetime games, holiday games, etc. I’ve even rounded up the worst games we’re all stuck watching in primetime together. But one mystery remains: Which game will be flexed to Sunday Night Football in Week 17?
You know the deal by now. For the 10th straight season, the NFL has left Week 17’s primetime game unscheduled so it can flex in the one with the greatest implications on the postseason. For the eighth straight year, every game will feature a divisional match-up to give them a better chance of being meaningful.
This set-up has provided some memorable games over the years—from the Rams-Seahawks Below-.500 Bowl to the Cowboys’ stretch of back-to-back-to-back losses against each of their NFC East rivals.
Last year on New Year’s Day Night, the Packers beat the Lions to complete Aaron Rodgers’ prophetic running of the table. The Packers clinched the NFC North and the Lions were forced to go on the road as a No. 6 seed.
This year Week 17 falls on Dec. 31, which means Game 256 will be on New Year’s Eve. The College Football Playoff semifinals took over the last two New Year’s Eves, but this year the NFL takes center stage as we sing Auld Lang Syne and toast to the upcoming playoffs.
But who will we be watching? There are plenty of candidates, so let’s power rank the 16 games in order of their likelihood to be flexed. The rankings will take into account a few factors, including the quality of the teams, the rivalry they have with each other, the likelihood the game will matter and the appeal of the teams to a national audience.
16. Jets at Patriots
The Jets lead off everyone’s mock drafts, and they are the first team listed here too. The Pats should have the AFC East wrapped up before Christmas, if not the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Even if they are playing for home field advantage, it seems unlikely the Jets will have anything on the line but their draft position.
15. 49ers at Rams
New Year’s Eve at the Coliseum the night before the Rose Bowl would make for a fun long weekend in L.A. But the 49ers and Rams have been third and fourth in the NFC West, in some order, each of the last three seasons. The odds of them meeting with each team’s playoff hopes still alive are slim.
14. Browns at Steelers
The Steelers swept the season series last year, and have now beaten the Browns in 24 of their last 27 meetings. Big Ben has reached the contemplate-retirement-every-season phase of his career, and has a division opponent that’s beaten him exactly two times. The Browns may be headed in the right direction, but they are still at least a couple years from being flexed into meaningful primetime games.
13. Bears at Vikings
The Packers and Lions are paired up again this Week 17, which leaves the NFC North’s other two foes locked in a battle that’s less likely to determine a playoff spot. These two teams already play each other on Monday Night Football in Week 5, and the Bears also have a date with the Lions in a standalone window on Saturday afternoon in Week 15. Even if the Bears improve on their 3-13 record, it feels like we’ve got enough of them for a national TV audience.
12. Bills at Dolphins
With at least one division likely up for grabs on the final Sunday, either the Dolphins or Bills would have to challenge the Patriots for a chance to flex this game. And the other team would need to be in the hunt for a wild card berth, or else the league would almost certainly rather put the Pats in primetime. Or… what if everything just goes horribly wrong for the Patriots? What if everybody gets hurt and they just have one of those seasons where everything falls apart. Nobody expects this to happen, but nobody expected things to get so bad for the 1999 49ers, 2003 Raiders, 2005 Packers or 2011 Colts. If it’s just one of those years in Foxboro, these two teams could be left waiting to pounce on an opportunity. (OK, yeah, I don’t see it either.)
11. Jaguars at Titans
The Titans are a popular pick in what might be football’s most winnable division, so this low ranking says a lot more about the Jaguars. Maybe I’m being petty after putting Jags-Colts fourth on this list last year. You won’t fool me again, Jaguars. It’s possible these teams will meet in a game where the winner gets to host the infamous Saturday afternoon wild card game, but the stakes can’t be much higher than that.
10. Texans at Colts
Next up we have the second half of this division, the game between two teams that have split the last eight AFC South crowns. Even if you like Tennessee, this game clearly has more of a chance to determine the race. Every year this seems to be one of the tightest races in football and once again I don’t see a team equipped to run away with it. So this is No. 10 on the list, but the first one I could truly envision happening.
9. Saints at Bucs
Speaking of divisions that always feel up for grabs, the NFC South famously never had a repeat champion until the 2013-15 Panthers. Once again this looks like a competitive division. The four teams may be spread out at different points of the competitive window, but none of them would be a total shock to see host a playoff game. But with the Saints four years removed from Brees’s and Payton’s last playoff trip, and the Bucs still an up-and-comer, this game takes a backseat to the other one featuring the NFC South.
8. Bengals at Ravens
The AFC North is a favorite for TV execs, though it might not have quite as much juice as it did for the last half decade. There have been years this division earned three playoff spots, but last year was a rare season in which the division didn’t qualify a wild card team.
The Bengals and Ravens have both been perennial contenders who are looking to rebound and keep up with the Steelers. If they can both do that, and/or if the Steelers fall back toward the middle of the pack, there would be lots of interest in these familiar teams.
7. Redskins at Giants
If the AFC North is a favorite for TV networks, the NFC East is always the favorite, and this game would definitely be chosen if it’s winner-take-all for the division title. MetLife Stadium is less than 10 miles from Times Square, and you can already imagine the b-roll and cutaway opportunities if those parties take place at the same time. A game on the West Coast would start at 5:30 local time, but a game on the East Coast would take fans right up to the ball drop. Just put it on the jumbotron so fans don’t miss it in the parking lot.
6. Packers at Lions
This would be a rematch of last year’s Game 256 and back in Detroit. This game feels like it belongs about in the same tier as this time last year. The Lions were a bit of a surprise among playoff teams, powered in large part by their string of fourth quarter comebacks and penchant for winning close games. Those 2016 results make them a 2017 regression candidate for lots of onlookers. But if newly-minted highest-paid QB Matthew Stafford is back in the playoff hunt, then this game could easily flex again.
5. Raiders at Chargers / 4. Chiefs at Broncos
For whatever reason the Game 256 flex has historically gone heavy on the NFC, including seven of the last eight games. Since the Patriots play the Jets and the Steelers play the Browns, the NFC West offers the best chance of bucking that trend.
The Raiders finally snapped their long playoff drought last season, which takes a little fun out of the possibility for a win-and-in Raiders games. But putting the tiny StubHub Center on the big stage could make for a memorable atmosphere if the Raiders and Chargers are both in the mix.
Picking which of these two games is more likely to settle the division simply comes down to personal preference and I give just a slight edge to Chiefs-Broncos.
3. Cardinals at Seahawks
This game has everything the NFL could want in a showcase game. The Cardinals and Seahawks are rivals who have given us some recent classics in primetime, Seattle has an awesome atmosphere for a big night game and there are plenty of recognizable stars on both sides.
These two teams are the clear frontrunners in their division, it’s just a matter of how tight the race is. If there are multiple options, the league might prefer to go with a West Coast game instead of the idea of East Coast fans pouring out of the stadium at close to midnight on New Year’s Eve. If that’s the case, this game would make a ton of sense if playoff seeds are on the line.
2. Panthers at Falcons
The NFC’s last two Super Bowl teams both have marquee quarterbacks and look to be the class of a competitive division that seems to be up for grabs every year. The Falcons open up Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season, and this would be an opportunity to show it off before it hosts the Super Bowl the year after.
These two teams might not have as much national appeal as some teams with bigger fan bases, but they could easily provide the most entertaining football game. The last time these two teams met in Atlanta was the Falcons’ 48-33 win last season when Julio Jones had 300 yards receiving. I’d sign up for another one of those shootouts in primetime with the division on the line.
1. Cowboys at Eagles
NFC East Alert! This division will forever be the favorite, as NBC has flat out admitted the obvious that the Cowboys mean ratings gold. The Eagles already host the Raiders on Christmas night the previous Monday, so why not just spend the holidays with the Philly fans. The NFC East should be a close race. If it comes down to second-year QBs Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz battling for a playoff spot, you can probably expect to see it on TV.
Just as Robert Burns once wrote: Should old acquaintance be forgot… the Cowboys will still be on TV a lot. Or something like that. Enjoy the season.