The planning for the final day of the NFL's regular season began almost three weeks ago, when NBC lobbied the league to let it show the Dallas Cowboys' game against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, instead of the Seattle-San Francisco game it was eventually awarded.
Why did the NFL deny the request of its premier television partner and decline to give it the guaranteed ratings bonanza of a Cowboys game? Because that would have given the Cowboys their season limit of prime-time appearances. And the scheduling department had already gotten a lucky break, when Dallas and Washington eked out last-minute victories in Week 14, keeping the Giants from running away with the NFC East, and keeping the Cowboys-Redskins matchup today in the mix to be the 256th and final game of the regular season.
So NBC got the breakout performance by the Seahawks instead. And the NFL, with a series of Rubik's Cube movements, got a final day in which 10 of 16 games have playoff implications -- even though only two playoff slots are open -- and which builds to the win-and-you're-in showdown between the Redskins and the Cowboys for the NFC East title.
Think you have trouble following all the playoff and seeding possibilities? The NFL spends months -- and lots of bandwidth -- early in the year constructing its regular-season schedule, taking into account everything from team requests not to play in too much heat to baseball playoff games that could take up shared parking lots. But it has just one day -- last Sunday -- to set the order of play for the final day of the regular season, so that the maximum number of teams take the field with something on the line, and the maximum number of viewers can see each game.
"We were thinking about Green Bay-Minnesota in prime time and we thought, What would the day have looked like?" said Michael North, the NFL's director of broadcast planning. "What would have happened if earlier in the day San Francisco and Seattle both lose and Green Bay clinches the 2 seed before they take the field -- now for Chicago and the Giants, Minnesota may end up playing Green Bay's backups. What if Minnesota clinches the wild card, they don't have to play their starters and Green Bay may be playing for the 2 seed against backups."
Several years ago, the NFL decided to make each game on the final day a division matchup, enhancing the chances that the games would have postseason implications. More recently, it started paying attention to the order the games are played throughout Sunday, so that early games do not render later ones irrelevant. Last Sunday, it became obvious that the Cowboys-Redskins game was the only one the NFL could be sure would still be meaningful by 8 p.m., no matter what happened earlier. So it gave that game to NBC, ensuring that for the fourth time in five seasons, the very last game of the regular season would decide a division.
"Fox wasn't thrilled, but we have constant dialogue with them," said Howard Katz, the league's senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. "They let us know they'd like to keep the Dallas game if at all possible. It could have been Green Bay going for the 1 seed, Minnesota having to win to get the 6 seed and Adrian Peterson going for the rushing record. But in the end, there were things that could have negated it all. We had to go with the sure thing."
The NFL has several rules at its disposal that help Katz, North and the rest of the scheduling department massage the schedule so that the final Sunday contains intrigue. In addition to all games being between division opponents, neither CBS nor Fox is allowed to "protect" any games in the final week, making every one eligible to move to the single prime-time slot. And the league waits until a week before to make the final decision on how to sequence the games, rather than the 12-day notice it gives for every other week.
Still, the decisions are byzantine. The NFL considered moving the Giants' game to 4:25 p.m., but that would have meant moving the Chicago game, too, to keep both meaningful. That would have left Fox with two meaningless games at 1 p.m. So the NFL kept the Giants and the Bears games at 1 p.m. In the AFC, the league considered leaving the Houston, New England, Denver and Baltimore games at the same time, with playoff seeding at stake -- the Patriots can finish anywhere from the first to the fourth seed.
Instead, the New England and Denver games were moved to late afternoon, because the Patriots will still be playing for the No. 2 seed even if Houston and Baltimore win early. The result: All the teams will be watching the scoreboard throughout the day, and so will all their fans.