What began with a lockout ends Sunday with a luck-out.
Thirteen of the NFL’s 16 games in Week 17 are truly meaningful , either to the playoffs or the 2012 draft, and the schedule culminates with a high-profile finale for all the marbles — Dallas at the New York Giants — the winner claiming the NFC East and the loser eliminated.
“What we hope each year is that our 256th and final regular-season game will be incredibly relevant,” said Howard Katz, the NFL’s senior vice president of media and operations. “So we try to sequence the games on the final Sunday so that we’re hopefully left with a game Sunday night that’s a win-and-you’re-in for somebody. In this case it’s two teams.
“It’s a perfect scenario. One team moves on to the playoffs and the other goes home for the summer.”
As a bonus for the NFL, the final game also happens to involve teams from the Nos. 1 and 5 markets, giving it even more national appeal than, say, last season’s win-and-you’re-in capper between St. Louis and Seattle.
“This game is always kind of like the last Christmas present that you’re opening,” said NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, analyst for the Cowboys-Giants game. “You know something fun’s going to be there, you’re just not sure exactly what it’s going to be.”
The NFC East isn’t the only division still up for grabs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh — both of whom have qualified for the postseason — are jockeying for the AFC North crown, and Denver and Oakland are vying for the AFC West title. The Broncos can claim it with a win over Kansas City, or by Oakland losing to San Diego. Unlike the Raiders, however, the Broncos are not in the running for the final AFC wild-card spot.
Five games will help determine playoff seeding, and two others — Indianapolis at Jacksonville and San Francisco at St. Louis — will determine who gets the No. 1 pick and the right to select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, likely the top selection.
As pointed out this week by Profootballtalk.com, only three games have no bearing on the playoff picture and negligible effect on the draft: Chicago at Minnesota, Washington at Philadelphia, and Seattle at Arizona.
This type of Week 17 intrigue is what the NFL had in mind two years ago when it decided to make all finales division matchups, thus creating incentive for teams to fight for victories to the end. The league was tired of playoff-bound teams taking their foot off the accelerator and coasting into the postseason, the way the 2009 Indianapolis Colts did when they got to 14-0 and opted to rest Peyton Manning, losing their final two games.
What made scheduling especially tricky this season was the looming specter of games being canceled because of the labor mess. So Katz and his crew spent the months between April and the end of July — from when the schedule was released until the end of the lockout — devising scheduling alternatives and contingency plans.
If the NFL had to play a shortened season, for instance, it could have scrapped Weeks 2 and 4, along with the bye week. That meant making sure there were no division games in Weeks 2 and 4, and that every team in the league played a game at home and on the road in those two weeks. Week 3 pitted teams that had identical bye weeks, so if all byes were eliminated, that week’s slate of games could be replicated.
“It was pretty complicated to do that,” said Katz, who has been in charge of scheduling for the last five years and said this last year was by far the most stressful.
Not everything went off without a hitch. Tweaking the schedule meant some teams had to play three consecutive games on the road, and some division series were bunched closer than the league would have liked. In at least three cases, teams had to travel across the country to play on a short week, as the San Francisco did in playing at Baltimore on Thanksgiving, a none-too-pleasing scheduling quirk for 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh.
“One of the things we reminded ourselves of is we can’t do that to clubs,” Katz said. “We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen next year. That was one of the unintended consequences of this year’s schedule, and we’ve learned from those.”
The 2012 season will bring some new challenges, among them the likelihood that there will be Thursday night games throughout the season as opposed to merely the second half of the season.
Katz and others will begin working on the upcoming schedule in early January before meeting with network partners some time around the Super Bowl to determine who gets which high-demand games. The schedule will be released in April and, with no labor strife on the horizon, Katz is hoping then to get his first good night’s sleep in a year.
“A successful year,” he said, “is when all our ratings are up and we have great games in Week 17.”
In a job that’s part science and part serendipity, it’s hard to quibble with the latest results.