How the NFL Can Fix Its Meaningless Week 17 Problem

I recently wrote about the NFL Playoff Picture and it’s relative stability in terms of the lack of playoff spots available, and the stable nature of the playoff seedings. That all spells meaningless games for Week 17, and for any sport to not have drama in the final week, it’s dangerous, and it has already become far too common in competitions such as UEFA’s Champions and Europa leagues.

However, all is not lost for I have a solution to this problem. It does not have a major reshuffling such as something dynamic like weighted seeding where teams with similar records continuously play another which has built-in mechanisms to establish clear tiebreakers. Rather, it is a relatively simple concept that is built on already existing models in collegiate sports.

Here goes:

1. Have all the teams play a non-conference schedule 

This already exists in the NFL, but under my solution, there would be four non-conference games against a particular division in the AFC for an NFC team, and the opposite for a NFC team. This model comes from Major League Baseball By having teams from opposing conferences, there is exposure between the two conferences, and its makes seeing certain teams more exclusive. That translates to more money for franchises and the NFL (who wouldn’t watch the Cowboys play the Steelers if it was a primetime game every three years?). That also makes these games more interesting because there will be less familiarity among the teams which helps even out the playing field. Additionally, the NFL could assign teams to play a regional rival from an opposing conference where you could regularly see a Cowboys/Texans or even Steelers/Eagles game

2. Have all the teams play a conference, non-division schedule

The second part helps with an already existing tiebreaker and is similar to the first item. Using the above premise, all NFC teams would play other non-divisional NFC teams while AFC teams play other non-divisional AFC teams. This makes these four games the more important than they currently are where teams have longer same conference, non-divisional opponents which allows for a greater margin for error. Under this new system, conference games would matter more because there would be fewer of them, and you could get potential conference championship matchups in the regular season earlier in the season. Like the non-conference schedule, it also places a premium on certain teams because there is room for alternation in location for the game whenever these teams play each other. This creates a greater excitement around these games, and greater financial profitability for the franchises from these games.

3. Finish the season with a divisional schedule

This is where the similarities to collegiate athletics occur. One thing that makes these games the best is that they have the greatest implications both in terms of sentiment and playoff importance as this is the first tiebreaker in deciding a division winner at the end of the year. Even for teams who may have nothing to lose in Week 17, a rivalry could create extra motivation that could knock a team out of a playoff position. This format also allows for classic Thanksgiving games to occur because the games that occur on those days are almost always divisional contests.  This format also leads to several different permutations that fit nicely into the last six games of the season, and potentially being the most important games.

This may not be a perfect format, but it does create a greater impetus on games that are usually lackluster during the final week of the season. The bye week could still slot in at any point in the year which means that teams will still have byes scattered throughout the year. It also helps combat the lack of interesting games that inevitably occurs in the NFL season because each segment of the schedule has a unique importance.

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