With the NHL and NBA playoffs getting underway, and baseball season into its third week, the NFL is desperate not to be shut out from one of the best sports periods of the year. Since actual football is still roughly a third of a year away, that means making an event of administrative tasks like the schedule release and the draft.
For the most part, this works. All the matchups for the 2017 NFL regular season were set the minute the 2016 regular season ended, so all that was revealed with the schedule release is the order in which teams would see its opponents, when bye weeks would fall, and who would be assigned to prime time games.
Yet even that scant amount of information generates considerable headlines. In part, that’s because the NFL is still the biggest draw in American sports. It’s also because having the order of games allows pundits to go week by week and make team record predictions, never mind that final rosters are still a ways from being set.
Because the fates of teams can vary wildly from year to year in the NFL, it’s a challenge scheduling prime time games, especially toward the end of the season. The league has a backup in place in the form of flex scheduling for Sunday Night Football, but there’s nothing that can be done for mediocre Thursday or Monday night games.
Predicting what is going to be compelling football can be tricky in some cases. Before last season, the Jaguars were a trendy pick by pundits to be a potential playoff team, yet Jacksonville quickly showed in 2016 it was about as wretched as has been true most years. This year, the league is banking on the opposite — the Jaguars and Browns both have zero prime time games in 2017. It’s the first time in Jaguars franchise history that they haven’t been awarded a prime time game, and the first for the Browns since 2010. Sure, the teams both play each other in Week 11, and theoretically that game could be flexed to Sunday night, much in the same way I could theoretically someday be president.
So if the NFL itself has to roll the die on which games to feature, we too can take a chance and predict which weeks of the regular season look to be the best ones. Even if some teams don’t end up being as good in 2017 as they were in 2016, and others are surprises, there’s enough year-to-year consistency to have an idea of which games will be worthy of excitement. After all, the Patriots are always a safe bet to be in consequential games, at least until they clinch the AFC East and home field advantage in early December. There are also just some weeks in the NFL season that are more fun than others, for reasons that are separate that sheer strength of matchup.
With all that in mind, here’s the ranking of each of the 17 weeks of the 2017 NFL season.
17. Week 3 – Highlights: Oakland at Washington (SNF), Dallas at Arizona (MNF), Houston at New England, Atlanta at Detroit, Cincinnati at Green Bay
The NFL’s website is pushing the Texans/Pats game as the top game to watch for this week, though anyone familiar with that rivalry knows Houston doesn’t exactly fare well in Foxborough. Without knowing what their quarterback situation will be, it’s hard to see that being any different in 2017. The rest is of just sort of meh. And that Rams/49ers Thursday game could be brutal.
16. Week 14 – Highlights: Pittsburgh at Baltimore (SNF), New England at Miami (MNF), Dallas at New York Giants, Tennessee at Arizona, Indianapolis at Buffalo. Detroit at Tampa Bay
The NFL goes big on division games as the season wears down and races get tighter. That makes more sense than trying to predict which inter-conference games will be good seven months in advance. Titans/Cardinals is an intriguing one to watch on Sunday afternoon, though.
15. Week 8 – Denver at Kansas City (MNF), Pittsburgh at Detroit (SNF), Miami at Baltimore (TNF), Oakland at Buffalo, Carolina at Tampa Bay, Houston at Seattle, Dallas at Washington
A lot of stuff that could be interesting if things shake out the right way, but right now, nothing that really jumps off the page. In other words, ideal midseason filler.
14. Week 10 – Highlights: New England at Denver (SNF), Dallas at Atlanta, Seattle at Arizona (TNF), Pittsburgh at Indianapolis, Miami at Carolina (MNF), Minnesota at Washington
Patriots/Broncos has lost a lot of luster since Peyton Manning retired, and whether the Broncos can give the Pats a game will depend on just how good their defense and quarterback play is in 2017. Cowboys/Falcons should be a slam dunk of a big game, unless one of those teams experiences a dramatic dropoff this season. Steelers/Colts looks respectable on paper, though Pittsburgh has been running roughshod over Indy the last few years. Dolphins/Panthers on Monday night is a gamble, but could end up being good.
13. Week 17 – Highlights: Kansas City at Denver, Dallas at Philadelphia, Carolina at Atlanta, Cincinnati at Baltimore, Houston at Indianapolis
Just as Week 1 is extra exciting regardless of matchups, the final weekend of the regular season can be drab just because so many teams have checked out, since it’s clear they won’t be making the postseason. This is why the NFL simply dumps a bunch of division games into the slate and hopes for the best. Most likely, there will be one or two that will decide the fate of a division champion. Will that be Eagles/Cowboys? Panthers/Falcons? Texans/Colts? Hard to say now, but those seem like the most likely possibilities.
12. Week 6 – Highlights: New York Giants at Denver (SNF), Pittsburgh at Kansas City, Philadelphia at Carolina, Indianapolis at Tennessee (MNF), Miami at Atlanta
A rematch of the Steelers/Chiefs playoff game has obvious appeal now, but the rest of the week largely depends of just how good a bunch of 2016 borderline teams will be. If the Broncos, Panthers, Titans, or Dolphins are teams that look like they’re making a jump, those games will be good. Otherwise, there won’t be much there.
11. Week 15 – Highlights: New England at Pittsburgh, Dallas at Oakland (SNF), Denver at Indianapolis, Atlanta at Tampa Bay (MNF), Green Bay at Carolina, Philadelphia at New York Giants
Patriots/Steelers being in Pittsburgh elevates what might be another Patriots rout if the game were in Gillette Stadium. The Steelers can likely give the Pats a game at home, especially if all the principals on offense are available. The Cowboys and Raiders were two teams that took the 2016 regular season by storm. If they’re as good in 2017, that will be one of the games of the year. Putting the Falcons and Bucs on Monday night this late in the season sends the signal that the NFL believes that Tampa is ready to compete for the division. Let’s hope they’re right.
10. Week 9 – Highlights: Kansas City at Dallas, Oakland at Miami (SNF), Detroit at Green Bay (MNF), Denver at Philadelphia, Atlanta at Carolina, Baltimore at Tennessee
Tony Romo getting his first shot at announcing a Cowboys game will be appointment viewing, and the Chiefs make a fascinating, and rare, opponent for Dallas. That alone gives a little extra oomph to what is otherwise a pedestrian slate of games. Oh, and that Thursday nighter between the Bills and Jets looks like it might be dreadful.
9. Week 12 – Highlights: Thanksgiving games, Green Bay at Pittsburgh, Denver at Oakland, Miami at New England, Tampa Bay at Atlanta
The Thanksgiving slate doesn’t look especially strong this year, though the holiday tradition of watching makes even average games bearable. Vikings-Lions is a repeat from 2016. Both are arguably playoff bubble teams, so there’s a chance it’s slightly better than a middling game on paper, but the ceiling isn’t exceptionally high. Assigning the Chargers to play Dallas on the holiday is something of a head-scratching call. Even with Joey Bosa as a young standout on defense, the Chargers are longshots to be good in 2017. And since the game is in Dallas, using the game to highlight the team’s move to Los Angeles isn’t a possible angle. Washington and New York in the Thanksgiving night game is decent, except the ‘Skins disastrous offseason makes it hard to believe they’ll be all that relevant by late November.
The Packers/Steelers Sunday night game looks very promising, meanwhile. Pittsburgh and Green Bay have only met once since playing in Super Bowl XLV and Aaron Rodgers was inactive for that. Given that the last time these teams met in Heinz Field, it was one of the best games of the past decade, the meeting of top quarterbacks and marquee franchises has a little something extra.
8. Week 4 – Highlights: Indianapolis at Seattle (SNF), Washington at Kansas City (MNF), Oakland at Denver, Pittsburgh at Baltimore, New York Giants at Tampa Bay, Carolina at New England
The Colts are set up with an easy early schedule, so they may be going into Week 4 looking better than they actually are, so a test in Seattle will help determine whether or not they are, as they say, for real. Steelers/Ravens is a reliable solid contest. If the Panthers bounce back in 2017, they could maybe give the Pats a game on the road, though that seems like a lot to ask.
7. Week 2 – Highlights: Green Bay at Atlanta, Dallas at Denver, Minnesota at Pittsburgh, New England at New Orleans, Detroit at New York Giants
Packers/Falcons is already a strong contest, and easy to hype as a rematch of the NFC Championship. There’s also the added allure of it presumably being the inaugural game of the Falcons’ new stadium. It’s also still early enough in the year that every team still has ludicrous hope, so even games that will prove bad by the end of the year get more attention than they should.
6. Week 13 – Highlights: Philadelphia at Seattle (SNF), New York Giants at Oakland, Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (MNF), Washington at Dallas (TNF), Minnesota at Atlanta, Denver at Miami
The season at this point is just turning the corner into December. The woebegone teams already know they’re out, but there will be plenty on the bubble, meaning a lot of these games will take on considerable import. Not the best slate of the season on paper, but situationally should make for good football.
5. Week 5 – Highlights: Green Bay at Dallas, New England at Tampa Bay (TNF), Baltimore at Oakland, Kansas City at Houston (SNF), Tennessee at Miami
Packers/Cowboys is one of the easiest games for the NFL to market and just happens to be a rematch of the most exciting game of the previous season. Thursday night actually gets an intriguing game between the Pats and Bucs in Tampa. If that game were in New England, perhaps it’s an automatic blowout, but an ascendant Bucs team could get an upset look at home. The Ravens just missed the postseason in 2016 and will be a decent opponent for the Raiders.
4. Week 7 – Highlights: Atlanta at New England (SNF), Kansas City at Oakland (TNF), Philadelphia at Washington (MNF), Seattle at New York Giants, Tampa Bay at Buffalo, Baltimore at Minnesota
Saving the Super Bowl rematch for Week 7 involves a bit of risk. What if it’s clear by that point that the Falcons have taken a step back? How likely are they to put up a game on the road against the Pats? Otherwise, the slate is pretty strong. There’s a rare compelling Thursday matchup with the Chiefs and Raiders in a pivotal AFC West game. The Seahawks secondary going against the Giants receiving corps is one of the better positional battles of the season.
3. Week 16 – Highlights: Oakland at Philadelphia (Monday late), Seattle at Dallas, Pittsburgh at Houston (Monday early), Indianapolis at Baltimore (Saturday), New York Giants at Arizona, Minnesota at Green Bay (Saturday)
Just as in 2016, the NFL is holding two games on Christmas Day, and they’re pretty good. Raiders/Eagles looks intriguing if you’re a believer in Carson Wentz excelling now that he has some receivers. Steelers/Texans is a playoff-caliber game. On Christmas Eve, Seahawks/Cowboys presents one of the better matchups the NFC can offer. Still, some will be irked at having games on during what is typically family time.
2. Week 1 – Highlights: Kansas City at New England (Thursday kickoff special), Seattle at Green Bay, New York Giants at Dallas (SNF), Oakland at Tennessee, Tampa Bay at Miami
Week 1 always makes for compelling football, regardless of matchup. There’s already the fact that no one will have a handle on which teams are good, so unpredictability is high. Plus fluky wins always happen early in the year since some teams have yet to find their stride. The Monday night doubleheader is just so-so, with Saints/Vikings and Chargers/Broncos.
Giants/Cowboys is a reliably good Sunday night game that the league typically features early in the season. The season kickoff game is strong, even if most fans likely won’t give the Chiefs much of a chance to steal a win from the Pats on the road. The Titans and Buccaneers are likely to be trendy picks to do well this season, and both have interesting Week 1 tests. The return of Eddie Lacy to Green Bay is a storyline to watch for an already solid Packers/Seahawks tilt.
1. Week 11 – Highlights: Philadelphia at Dallas (SNF), Atlanta at Seattle (MNF), Tennessee at Pittsburgh (TNF), New England at Oakland (Mexico City), Baltimore at Green Bay, Arizona at Houston, Kansas City at New York Giants, Cincinnati at Denver
Top to bottom, this is the strongest week of matchups of the 2017 season. All the prime time games are solid, and Sunday afternoon offers the Raiders and Patriots in Mexico City, already a standout matchup in a unique setting.