One of the upsides of the NFL’s sluggish ratings the past two years is all the things the league is essentially forced to do to keep fans engaged. It was only 20 months ago that Roger Goodell was talking about pushing through an extra wild-card team that no one asked for in the name of revenue, a plan the NFL apparently abandoned. The league has to do things people enjoy.
This Sunday will bring another example: Due to ratings concerns, the league canceled Sunday Night Football this week and will not be hosting a prime-time game on New Year’s Eve. It will be the first time since 1977 that the NFL regular season doesn’t end with a prime-time game. Instead, the league will funnel all teams into Sunday afternoon, and more specifically, every team on the playoff bubble will play in the 4 p.m. slot.
This is going to be awesome. It does not matter the reason. It only matters what’s happening: The NFL has built the perfect final Sunday.
One of the best football moments of the past 20 years happened in the final afternoon time slot of 2003—Josh McCown hit Nate Poole on the last play of a meaningless Cardinals’ season to knock the Minnesota Vikings out of the playoffs and put the Packers in.
This is not just an all-time great what-if play: That talented Vikings team missed a shot to make a playoff run in a weak NFC with one of its most talented teams of the era; the Packers played two of the most famous playoff games of all time back to back (the Matt Hasselbeck game and the fourth-and-26 game); and a fairly uninspiring Panthers team made the Super Bowl, somehow giving John Fox employment that continues today. But again, it’s not just an important what-if. The play is a model for how every final Sunday should be in the NFL. That is why this Sunday has the chance to be so special.
The final Sunday should be one of the most fun things in the sport—right up there with the divisional weekend, the first night of the draft, and when Jeff Fisher calls up a radio station to say he left the Rams in good shape. I would argue that the league’s policy of trying to schedule dramatic win-or-in Sunday night prime-time games hurts the drama of the final day.
The looming Sunday night game takes away from the importance of the afternoon—it isolates one game from the rest of the chaos. It makes the afternoon games less meaningful and runs the risk of making the final game feel anticlimactic. There have been examples of great Sunday night win-and-in games—the 2012 Cowboys-Redskins Week 17 game for the NFC East title comes to mind—but those are not enough to make the Sunday night prime-time slot some sort of iconic finish to the season. With one game after the rest have finished, you can’t see the complete picture as it comes together.
The biggest story of the day, obviously, is the playoff teams: Every team fighting for a playoff spot plays at once—and both Fox and CBS can televise double-headers this week—but it’s deeper than that. With double-digit coaching vacancies possible, there is a nearly endless parade of jobs and legacies on the line.
Each team competing on Sunday has a tricky game on its hands, and many have an even messier road to the postseason: Baltimore is in the playoffs with a win, but it is facing a Bengals team as erratic as any in the league—and I am not totally clear on whether “doing it for Marvin Lewis in his last game” involves winning or losing. The Titans are also a win-and-in team, but they enter their matchup against a good Jaguars team on a three-game losing streak. The Chargers have to beat the Raiders (another team with coaching questions swirling), then hope for their clearest path: Titans and Ravens losses. The Bills, who would likely be in a much better position had they not let Nathan Peterman throw five interceptions in the first half against the Chargers earlier this year, have to get help via a Ravens loss and beat the Dolphins, who are led by a quarterback who has lived in a hotel for the entire year and is bragging about how many hotel points he has accumulated. Taken individually, most of these teams have been boring for a long stretch of the season, but crunch them into one time slot with playoff spots on the line and you get football magic. Mundane teams that you haven't bothered to care about all season will have you screaming at your TV. That is the power of chaos.
The Falcons will have to beat the rival Panthers to secure a playoff spot. If they don’t, a possibly dangerous Seahawks team could sneak in. Atlanta and Seattle have not intrigued me very much this season, but the fact their fates might be intertwined fires me up.
Hell, even a meaningless Broncos-Chiefs game (in which we get to see Patrick Mahomes II!) is made meaningful by the fact that, out of nowhere, Vance Joseph’s job might be called into question with a loss. Is Dirk Koetter going to get fired with a loss to the Saints? Is everyone, all at once, going to realize that John Fox hasn’t been fired yet against the Vikings?
Nearly the entire league, in one afternoon, is either trying to make the playoffs or playing for their coaches’ jobs. Isn’t that what football is about? Even if that’s not on the line, there are other pieces of intrigue on Sunday: I want to see Jimmy Garoppolo against the Rams’ defense. I want to see the maybe-struggling Eagles play a talented Cowboys team.
Sunday is taking many vaguely interesting but mostly boring things, stacking most of them together in the same three-hour window, and exciting everyone. It’s basically an Expendables movie.
This “everything all at once on the last day” idea has been perfected by the English Premier League, and like the EPL, I would take this one step further and put every game all at once in the 4 p.m. slot. You can put some of the games on cable if the league would like, but just let all the chaotic things happen in unison. The football hasn’t been as fun as it could be this year, but we are entering the only stretch where we all agree that the sport is awesome. We’ve been waiting all year for this and frankly, waded through lots of crap. It starts Sunday. We’re here.