The final week of the NFL season is upon us, and following today’s slate of games, there is not a whole lot of drama in store. For the neutral fan, the two biggest games next week will be between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns (who would have thought that they could be this good, this soon?) and the Indianapolis Colts attempting to play spoiler to the playoff hopes of the Tennessee Titans.
The NFC is a much more straightforward picture with all of the division races being wrapped up, and only the final playoff spot being up for grabs. This means that the only games that matter are the Washington Redskins against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Bears against the Minnesota Vikings.
Sadly, this creates a problem for the NFL where it is so dependent on action, and like any sport, the narrative that any moment could change the outcome of the game. This simply won’t be the case for the two above reasons, which means that when I sit down at a Buffalo Wild Wings near me, I will most likely not be watching the stars who make the NFL millions on a weekly basis.
Because so many teams will have either clinched their division, a playoff berth, or both by the time a game kicks off next Sunday and there will be established seedings, the chance of meaningful games is virtually nil.
As of right now, the AFC playoff picture appears to be the Chiefs, Texans, Patriots, Steelers, Chargers, and Ravens. The only teams that are still considered to be in the hunt for the final Wild Card spot are the aforementioned Titans and Colts.
The NFC appears in a similar manner as a loss last night by the Redskins and today’s loss by the Carolina Panthers guarantee that January football will not happen this year. That means that the picture looks like the Saints, Rams, Bears, Cowboys, Seahawks, and Vikings leaving only the Eagles with a chance to make the playoffs in the NFC. Even then, the Eagles need to win another game with Nick Foles at the helm (it has happened more than I ever thought it could), and the Vikings have to lose to a Bears team that could have nothing to play for.
This all goes to say that Week 17 is not as impactful as it could be. Granted, most sports struggle with thrills on the final day because so much of the action is a mere formality. Major League Baseball got lucky with having not one, but two Game 163s this past season, but it came after a ten-year wait. Most the NBA action is decided by the time the teams take the court, just like Championship Weekend in both the NCAA football and basketball sense. Soccer is not immune to this either as some leagues are decided weeks, not days before the final matchday.
This all goes to say that the NFL suffers from a problem that occurs throughout sports: the final slate of games may have a couple studs, but is mostly comprised of duds as teams simply don’t have an incentive to play for much. Plus, who can blame them? Would you watch the Saints in the playoffs if Drew Brees broke his collarbone in Week 17? How about Chiefs without Patrick Mahomes?
Because it is more advantageous for teams to rest their star players for key games, it also means that fans don’t get to see the best product. It also means that I am going to Buffalo Wild Wings more for the company of a friend than I am for the pure interest of watching great football games (I still can’t forget last year’s Cowboys/Eagles game that finished 6-0 and required three and a half quarters before a team reached the red zone and featured Dan Bailey missing both a short field goal and an extra point).
Week 17 will have playoff implications if certain games go a certain direction, but it won’t be the NFL’s finest moment. But then again, does it have to be? We will simply turn around a week later and watch Wild Card Weekend and resume our regularly scheduled cheering and jeering as men with pads runs up and down the field.
As for the playoff picture, you have it in front of you.