Here’s what NFL TV schedule could look like
Will a rematch of the NFC championship kick off the NFL’s 2018 season? Will the Washington Redskins play their third Thanksgiving in a row? Will Jon Gruden’s Oakland Raiders anchor the season’s first Monday night on ESPN?
These are three scenarios that were bandied about in Minneapolis during Super Bowl week as network executives made their annual trek to lobby the NFL’s master schedule maker, Howard Katz, for the best games next season.
Top executives from ESPN, Fox Sports and NBC Sports met with Katz and his team in Minneapolis. CBS met the week before in New York. As in every other year in recent memory, the networks clamored to carry the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers — teams that reliably draw the biggest TV ratings in the league. This year, the networks also showed a lot of interest in the Philadelphia Eagles, even before their Super Bowl win.
What made this year’s meetings different were the number of new teams that piqued interest, like the Los Angeles Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers with newly signed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Here are a few predictions for how the NFL schedule could shake out:
Sunday night remained the NFL’s top-rated package last season and was the top-rated prime-time series in all of television for the seventh consecutive season. It will come as no surprise that, once again, the league will put its most competitive schedule on NBC and max out on the number of times it carries the Cowboys, Packers and Patriots. Don’t be surprised to see NBC carry multiple Rams games early in the season.
The AFC schedule looks particularly weak next season from a television standpoint. For example, the only Cowboys games CBS could carry are against the Jaguars and Titans, two teams that generally do not bring in big ratings. Look for the NFL to cross-flex more NFC games to CBS than it has in the past in an attempt to put bigger market games on the network.
I expect Fox to have a stronger “Thursday Night Football” schedule than in previous years. Sources said Fox is open to moving games that would have anchored late Sunday windows to Thursday night. Sunday still matters for Fox. But as it starts its five-year “Thursday Night Football” deal, it wants the strongest schedule possible on Thursday.
Last year, ESPN pushed to have more games between division rivals. Expect the league to give ESPN more of those games, though this schedule will continue to have the weakest games of any TV package.
NFL Opener on NBC
■ Minnesota at Philadelphia. Dallas-Philly would post a bigger rating, and the NFL will want to start the season strong following two years of ratings drops. But the league loves rematches in this slot, and a replay of the NFC championship makes the most sense here.
Opening Weekend on ESPN
■ Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland. Look for ESPN to get the Raiders home opener, which would be former “Monday Night Football” analyst Gruden’s first home game as the Raiders coach. The opponent doesn’t matter here. ESPN just wants Gruden, who served as “Monday Night Football” analyst for nine seasons.
■ Green Bay at Detroit on CBS. The only AFC opponents the Lions play at home next season are the Patriots and the Jets. CBS and the NFL consider the Patriots to be too strong and the Jets to be too weak for this early-window Thanksgiving slot. Look for the league to cross-flex an NFC North rival to Thanksgiving. The Lions played the Vikings on Thanksgiving the past two years, so my bet is on the Packers. Green Bay has not played on Thanksgiving since 2013.
■ Washington at Dallas on Fox. For the past several seasons, Fox has pushed for good Thanksgiving matchups to help boost ratings. My guess is that the league will pick an NFC East opponent, and I’m placing my bets on Washington. The Redskins have played on Thanksgiving the past two seasons, but the league does not mind having them play on consecutive Thanksgivings.
■ Falcons at Panthers on NBC. The NFL likes to have a rivalry game in this slot. While it has a lot of games it can use in this slot, I’m keeping my eye on this NFC South matchup. That would allow the NFL to turn around and have the Falcons host the Cowboys the following Thursday as part of the “Thursday Night Football” package.