There will be no Sunday Night Football to end 2017, the first time in four decades that the NFL season has not ended with a standalone primetime game.
The NFL announced its schedule for Week 17 on Monday, as is its usual practice. Sunday games towards the end of the season can be “flexed” into different time slots, so that unappealing games can make way for a more enticing matchup to be moved to either SNF or to the prime 4:25pm ET slot of a CBS or Fox doubleheader. This is usually done with 12 days of notice, but for Week 17 this is halved to six to allow for scheduling to account fully for the playoff picture going into the final week.
Usually, one game with standalone implications – most often a win-and-in, lose-and-out game to decide a weak division – is chosen for this purpose. However, 2017 offers no such game; seven of the eight divisions have already been clinched, and the exception is the NFC South where the 11-4 Saints and Panthers are not playing each other. (Furthermore, the latter play the 9-7 Falcons, who are in the wild card mix.)
As such, the NFL has made the unprecedented decision to schedule all 16 games at either 1pm or 4:25pm ET, with no night game. As ever with the NFL, the easiest way to criticise this decision is to use its previous decisions against it. The Week 17 night game for the 2009 season (played in January 2010) was a Bengals-Jets game where both teams were in the playoff mix and likely to need a win, but earlier results could – and did – allow for the Bengals to clinch the AFC North and be locked into their seeding come kickoff. Marvin Lewis promptly sat his starters and crashed to a 37-0 loss over a full-strength Jets, securing Rex Ryan’s team a Wild Card game against… the Bengals. (Hilariously, the Jets won that one despite being on the road and the Bengals being rested, thus beginning the saga of Marvin Lewis and the Improbable Playoff Defeats. But that deserves another article.)
It would have been beyond inadvisable for the NFL to have a meaningless game on primetime television late on New Year’s Eve at the end of a regular season where TV ratings have already been sliding and the league has become, no pun intended, a political football (again, that’s another article). Maybe NBC aren’t happy with losing a primetime game, but the NFL could well compensate them in some way, either by giving them an extra game in the TNF package next season or through allocating them appealing playoff games this season. (NBC air one game in each of the first two weeks of the postseason, as well as rotating Super Bowl broadcasts with CBS and Fox; they get this season’s Super Bowl XLII as part of that rotation.) So it’s no surprise that there is no SNF game to end this season.
The real problem is that the scheduling allows for such a situation to begin with. While there will always be some games where teams are locked into their seeding before a snap is played in Week 17 (like the Jaguars and Chiefs are this year), there are many more situations where games are interdependent and playing them in a staggered fashion creates the possibility of games suddenly becoming irrelevant. This is a problem that nearly every other sporting league of significance lacks, as they play their final set of fixtures simultaneously, and it seems unfathomable that the NFL should be different for the sake of a TV rights contract.
Helpfully, this does not have to involve 16 games being played at once in only one time slot. Because playoff spots are decided within conferences and the final week of fixtures now consists entirely of divisional games, it doesn’t matter if the NFC teams play at the same time as the AFC teams, as long as they play at the same time as each other (and vice versa). So do it like that; the eight games from one conference played together in one time slot, the eight games from the other conference played together about four hours later. Because of the existence of West Coast teams, the early kickoff couldn’t actually be that early; the conference championship games take place at 3:05pm and 6:40pm ET with the slots alternating between conferences each year, an arrangement that could be replicated for Week 17 games.
There are multiple ways to make this work from a broadcast perspective. Perhaps the simplest would be for NBC to have a doubleheader with their pick of the games in each conference in lieu of their current isolated SNF game, while CBS broadcast the remaining seven AFC games and Fox the remaining seven NFC games on a regional basis as they do in a normal week. Alternatively, the current arrangement of CBS and Fox doubleheaders could be maintained with both airing games from each conference. It is even possible that the rights could be split between CBS, Fox, NBC, and ABC, with each network airing two games at once – one on their broadcast network, the other on a cable affiliate. (The broadcast/cable games could be flipped in home markets of teams in the cable games; ABC/ESPN already use this “reverse mirror” process for Saturday night college games.)
Those details can be arranged. The important thing for the NFL is to make sure that they are never forced into a choice between the integrity of their league and the integrity of their broadcasting contracts ever again.