The NFL’s Missed Opportunity: The 17th Game


The NFL played a 16-game schedule for 43 years. But last year, the NFL added a 17th regular-season game, because of course another week of football means another week of TV revenue. Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s not, but it seems highly unlikely that it will ever go back to 16 games.

The problem is not so much that there is one additional game each season, but that the NFL had an opportunity to really do something exciting and, frankly, completely whiffed on it. It’s kind of understandable because ever since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 8 divisions, the 16 games made pretty good sense:

6 games against the other 3 teams in-division, home and away.
4 games against another division in the same conference.
4 games against a division in the other conference.
2 games against the other two in-conference teams that had the same finish. So, if you finished 3rd in your division, you play two additional third-place teams in your conference.

This is actually really well thought-out. Mostly games in your own conference, lots in your own division, and some matching up of schedules based on how well you did last year.

Really, the only problem with this is that it means there are teams in different conferences who only play each other every four years, and home fans only get to see these games every eight years. What the NFL was really missing was regional rivalries across conferences.

They could have fixed this with the addition of the 17th game, but instead they added another game that’s a little harder to wrap your head around: you play another team from the other conference that had the same finish you did, but from a different division than the division you play 4 games against. Feel free to read that again, as it’s a little bit convoluted. This doesn’t seem like the way to build additional fan interest or garner great TV ratings. Yes, sure, this year it gives us a Super Bowl re-match of Chiefs vs. Eagles, but remember it also gives us Cardinals vs. Texans.

The Solution

What I think the NFL should have done is tried to give us an additional AFC-NFC matchup, but ones that fans can actually get behind. In particular, I think the NFL should embrace regional rivalries. Make teams that are close to each other actually play each other EVERY YEAR, alternating home and away. This would be the way to address natural rivalries that should exist, but don’t because the close-by team is not only not in the division, but in the other conference.

So, trying to go by geography as much as possible, here are the sixteen matchups we should get every year instead of things like Rams-Colts. These are games that should pretty much always sell out, because even when the home team isn’t very good, it should be easy for opposing fans to drive to this game.

Finally, before I dive in, note that these teams do already play each other once every four years, so if this plan were to go into effect, every four years they’d end up playing twice in a year. Frankly, I think that’s actually a good thing, especially for this first set of matchups.

The A Tier Matchups

Jets vs. Giants
The Matchup in the Meadowlands. Doing this in the preseason just feels like cheating the fans. Make it count!

Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia
The Stillers and the Iggles. Two of the most shall we say, motivated fan bases in the NFL. Every single television in the state of Pennsylvania would be tuned in. There would probably be fistfights in Harrisburg. The world needs this.

Rams vs. Chargers
“The Showdown in SoFi” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as some of the others from a name perspective, but honestly, they really should play each other every year.

Dallas vs. Houston
The Battle for the Lone Star State. I perhaps need to remind the world that the very first game the Texans franchise ever played in the regular season was against the Cowboys, and the Texans won it. I’m also pretty sure the Texans have more playoff wins in the last 15 years than the Cowboys do.

Baltimore vs. Washington
Bumper-to-bumper traffic on both I-95 and on the BW parkway! But seriously, is there any chance this game wouldn’t sell out every single year, no matter how good or bad these teams are?

Miami vs. Tampa
The two Florida teams that have actually won a Super Bowl. Orange everywhere. What’s not to love?

San Francisco vs. Las Vegas
Maybe really a B-tier matchup, but in my mind they will always be the Oakland Raiders and so this belongs.

The B Tier

Buffalo vs. Green Bay
Special scheduling note: must be played in December or January. Mandatory camera shots of the on-field thermometer before game time. Crazed, frozen fan bases. Who wouldn’t watch this? This is almost A-tier; I only put it in B because the drive isn’t great.

Cleveland vs. Detroit
The Rust Belt Rumble? The Urban Blight Ultimatum? Sadly probably would only get half the TV ratings of Michigan-Ohio State. It’s still Michigan vs. Ohio, though, and people will still care and will still make the drive.

Kansas City vs. Minnesota
The I-35 series? It’s actually kind of odd that there’s not some kind of existing rivalry between these two cities but I guess it’s been a really long time since Twins-Royals has been competitive. Both enthusiastic fan bases who would definitely make this drive, though.

Denver vs. Arizona
OK, not really a good a drive, but these teams do have one thing in common: Mountain Time! This game should be played one hour offset from usual starting time for NFL games, just to cash in on the commonality. (There’s no good drive from Denver to anywhere in the NFC. The Mountain Time thing is the best that can be done here.)

Chicago vs. Indianapolis
Not exactly scintillating right now, though this was a Super Bowl matchup once, but there is upside: it’s a short drive. I think it could become a thing.

The C Tier

The problem here is that there are six teams that are all vaguely close in geography but none of these matchups are currently really all that interesting and the distances are all kind of similar. There are multiple ways this could be done, but this is the set I like best:

Tennessee vs. Atlanta
This is the best of the three matchups, since this is a short and pretty straightforward drive and Nashville and Atlanta have a little bit of a city rivalry anyway; the networks could pitch this as rap vs. country or something like that.

Jacksonville vs. New Orleans
The I-10 series? The Hurricane Evacuation Series? Gold helmets on both sides, that’s at least something.

Cincinnati vs. Carolina
Catfight? Cincinnati is mostly only close to other AFC teams so this was going to be a bit of a stretch no matter what. The drive is a little awkward, too, since there isn’t really an interstate that goes particularly directly, but not every single matchup is going to be exactly perfect. Still better than the final one, though.

The F Tier

New England vs. Seattle
Look, someone had to be left over, OK? There is nothing anywhere close to Seattle that isn’t already in their division, so there was no way for Seattle to end up with anything that isn’t awkward. On the other side, the obvious city rivalry for Boston is New York, but the Pats already play the Jets twice a year and can’t play the Giants because the Giants obviously have to play the Jets. The next closest NFC team to Boston is Philly, and they absolutely have to play Pittsburgh. There’s no good answer for these two teams, so they just end up having to play each other. Obviously this isn’t drivable but nothing is really drivable from Seattle anyway so might as well just embrace a long flight. Mandatory re-hashing of Super Bowl XLIX for the entire pre-game. That’s how interest will be generated.

Final Thoughts

So hey, Jets-Giants! Eagles-Steelers! Pay no attention to the Seahawks behind the curtain. That one is kind of a stinker, sure, but the A-Tier games are all so good this just seems to me like a way better solution than what the NFL is doing now. I think fans in most cities would be happy to have a game nearby, and while there’s no rivalry in place for some of these teams and cities, I think many of them will develop pretty quickly this way. Come on, NFL, give us these games!