Let’s get this out of the way up front. I steadfastly opposed the idea of a 17-game NFL regular season, but it was inevitable.
In the give-and-take between the league and the players’ union, the NFLPA eventually succeeded in eliminating two preseason games. However, that takes paying customers away from the owners, and they wanted something in return.
The players refused to budge on an 18-game season, so there was a compromise. The league gets an extra week of games in the regular season, and there was one playoff team added in each conference.
The idea is to sweeten the TV pot with 16 extra regular-season games and two additional playoff contests. We’ll soon see how well it worked with broadcast deal negotiations underway.
The longer term question is what to do with that 17th regular-season game once it’s officially added to the schedule – most likely in 2021.
There was brief talk of every team playing one international game. That would expand the NFL’s global reach and take care of the problem with some teams playing eight home games while others play nine.
It looks like the short-term answer will be more predictable. In keeping with its current scheduling model, the league is likely to simply add an extra interconference game for each team. For example, the third-place team in the AFC West might play the third-place team in the NFC North.
The unbalanced home-road split would be solved by making the NFC teams host in odd-numbered years and the AFC teams host in even-numbered years, or vice versa. In that way, at least the number of home games would be equal within the same conference.
Since the 17-game schedule is being forced upon us, I’d rather see a more radical approach.
Keep the 16-game season exactly as it is, and literally add an extra week. That final week would be blank on each team’s schedule until the first 16 games are played.
At that point, the league can look for the best possible matchups for the season finales. Here’s a chance to break ties on the field and add a little drama for the TV networks and the fans.
Using this year’s standings through 14 games as an example, the Miami Dolphins (9-5) and Baltimore Ravens (9-5) could play in the final week for the seventh seed in the AFC. The Tennessee Titans (10-4) and Indianapolis Colts (10-4) could meet for a third time to decide the AFC South champion, having split the first two meetings. And the New Orleans Saints (10-4) and Seattle Seahawks (10-4) could battle for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
There could be less impactful battles as well. The Detroit Lions (5-9) and San Francisco 49ers (5-9), for instance, could meet to break a tie in the draft order.
There would, of course, still be plenty of meaningless games. With the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC locked up, the Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) could square off with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-13) in a game that likely would resemble a preseason contest.
The point is to get as many matchups that matter as possible and to decide as much as possible on the field. The current tiebreaking procedures could be used to determine who gets home-field advantage. That would mean the Dolphins host the Ravens, the Titans host the Colts and the Saints host the Seahawks.
Those three games alone would make the open-scheduling concept worth the effort. You could even spread them out throughout the day with one kicking off at 1 p.m. ET, one at 4:15 p.m. and one in the prime-time 8:20 p.m. slot. The games could also be spread among the networks to maximize the TV impact.
There would be lean years and seasons with an abundance of impact games in the final week. There would also be teams strongly opposed to this concept.
Playoff contenders like New Orleans and Seattle, for instance, might not be wild about playing such an important game the week before the postseason while the top-seeded Green Bay Packers presumably get a weak opponent before a bye week.
So the system is clearly not without its flaws. But, as I already mentioned, the 17-game season is a bad idea to start with.
The NFL might as well do what it can to make the most of it.