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Game 256: Which matchup will be flexed to prime time in Week 17?

Forget the season opener: What about the season closer? Every year, the NFL puts a game with playoff implications on the line in its final prime-time slot. Which matchups are most likely to get the call?

The NFL season is here, and it’s all starting anew: 32 teams, 17 weeks and 256 games. The schedule is set up to give endless storylines time to unfold, in a format manageable enough to allow fans to digest nearly every game in real time.

Game No. 1 has been elevated to one of the marquee events on the football calendar, an annual rite of passage for the defending champions to usher in their title defense. But I’m not here to preview Game No. 1, I’m here to look way, way, way too far ahead to the true crown jewel of the regular season: Game No. 256.

You probably know the drill by now. Since 2008 the NFL has left the Week 17 prime time slot unscheduled, then waited until the last possible moment to flex in the game with the greatest impact on the playoff picture. The NFL also helped ensure big games would be there for the choosing by scheduling exclusively divisional matchups for Week 17, starting in 2010.

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The stakes should always be high for Game No. 256. That goal was put to the test with the 2010 NFC West title game, when the Rams and Seahawks battled to see which .500 or below team would earn the final spot in the playoff picture. In subsequent years, we have been treated to a Cowboys bad-beat three-peat, in which Dallas lost to each of their NFC East rivals in succession as the 2011 Giants, 2012 Redskins and 2013 Eagles clinched division titles in prime time. Last season, the Vikings wrapped up the NFC North with a win at Lambeau Field.

There will be no obstacles to getting a great game this year. In years past, there have been some rules limiting how many prime-time games a team can play, but this year the league has decreed that any Week 17 game is eligible to be flexed.

Predicting which of those games ultimately gets the call is one of my favorite parlor games to play on Twitter throughout the season, so this year I’m just getting an early start. I’ll power rank which of Week 17’s 16 games are most likely to be flexed into prime time. Consider this a backwards approach to a season preview.

The rankings will take into account a few factors, including the quality of the teams, the rivalry they have with each other, the likelihood the game will matter and the appeal of the teams to a national audience. Remember: This is a ranking based on what’s most likely to happen, not what I’m rooting for.

16. Browns at Steelers

These rankings have to start somewhere, and I don’t think the season will finish with Browns-Steelers. Cleveland might be the least likely team in the league to make the playoffs, and even if they’re competitive, this game might end up being one-sided. The Steelers have beaten the Browns in 22 of their last 25 meetings.

15. Seahawks at 49ers

Like Browns-Steelers, one team is expected to be a factor in the playoff race, and one isn’t. It’s possible the Seahawks might need to play their way into the playoffs, but it’s doubtful the 49ers will still be alive. There’s also the possibility of NBC cameras panning over an embarrassingly empty Levi’s Stadium if the game doesn’t matter to the 49ers.

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14. Bills at Jets

While Rex Ryan’s latest meeting with his former team will generate headlines and sideline cutaway shots, this game seems unlikely to decide the AFC East race.  Could either of these teams be fighting for a wild card? Absolutely. Could they challenge to win the division? Sure. But will they be engaged in a winner-take-all for first place while the Patriots sit at home in third? That’s hard to believe.

13. Bears at Vikings

This might have been higher on the list before Teddy Bridgewater’s injury put a damper on the Vikings’ Super Bowl hopes. The Vikings did get better in the short term with the Sam Bradford trade, but they won’t get close to the level of preseason hype they had stoked entering Bridgewater’s third season. Green Bay figures to be in the NFC North driver’s seat, and it would take a stumble from the Packers to elevate the playoff implications of a Week 17 Jay Cutler game. Prime time in the new stadium could be fun, but we’re probably also depending on a healthy Bradford in Week 17 to see it.

12. Texans at Titans

The AFC South is a jumble of four teams that all have a shot to be in the hunt come Week 17, but this feels like the lesser of the two intra-division games. Houston is the defending champ, and this ranking may feel low, but it’s based on my personal feelings of how the AFC South standings will play out and the fact that these teams wouldn’t be great for national TV ratings. Let’s just say that if this game ends up deciding a playoff spot, the winner is destined for the Saturday afternoon wild card game.

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11. Patriots at Dolphins

The Belichick Era Patriots will always be an appealing draw for the league in prime time, especially if they start slow behind Jimmy Garappolo and spend the final 12 games playing catch-up. If this was Patriots-Jets it would be much higher on the list, but I don’t think Miami is the right opponent to push them into flex territory. But that could always change if the standings do put the Patriots in a win-and-in scenario.

10. Saints at Falcons

Here we have a fun rivalry game that would probably also result in a lot of points on the scoreboard. This would need a regression season from the Panthers to be for the division crown, but these teams could both hang around the wild card race in a very top-heavy NFC.

9. Panthers at Buccaneers

Next up we have the other NFC South game, featuring the division favorite Panthers. On one side we have the defending NFC champion and reigning league MVP Cam Newton. On the other side we have Jameis Winston, who will probably be a huge story if he takes a second-year leap and has the Bucs in playoff position through 16 weeks. This game would have marquee value if it’s meaningful, but I don’t think it will be compared to some other others in the top half of the rankings.

8. Packers at Lions

These teams gave us a Thursday night classic last year, capped off by Aaron Rodgers’s Hail Mary to Richard Rodgers at the buzzer. Could they do the same again this year in Week 17? Green Bay is expected to be in the upper tier of the NFC, as usual. It would be a surprise if the Lions are right there with them, but the door is open for somebody to rise as their biggest challenger in the North.

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7. Cardinals at Rams

I think this is the game the NFL would most want if they could wish high stakes onto any of the 16 matchups. The league office would surely love the final game of the season to be a showcase for the feel-good (for some) story of the NFL’s return to L.A. Especially if the Rams can ride Todd Gurley and the defense to playoff contention sooner than most people expect. If these teams are both in the thick of the playoff chase, this is an easy choice. I just don’t think the Rams will get there.

6. Ravens at Bengals

It would depend on a rebound year from the Ravens, but this could be a battle between two good teams in a really good division. People love to talk about the league’s obsession with the NFC East, but the AFC North is also a regular staple in the prime-time schedule. Any non-Browns AFC North game is a perennial threat to get flexed.

5. Chiefs at Chargers

It would depend on a rebound year from the Chargers, but this could be a battle between two good teams in a really good division. Meanwhile, could this be the final NFL game in San Diego for the foreseeable future? The Bolts have until January to exercise the option to move to L.A., and this is a game that could have mammoth storylines even without playoff stakes.

4. Jaguars at Colts

I think this is the game I’m most rooting for. The AFC South hasn’t exactly been (understatement alert) the most thrilling division in football this decade. But the Jaguars are one of the big sleeper teams in the AFC and could challenge for the division title. If they have a chance to earn their first playoff berth since 2007 and first division title since 1999 against Andrew Luck and the Colts, the undeniable playoff implications in this game might outweigh the fact that it doesn’t feel or sound like a typical headliner.

3. Cowboys at Eagles

NFC East! NBC’s favorite division deserves the pole position in these power rankings, whether you like it or not. NBC has actually come out and said the Cowboys draw such great ratings, they’re “the linchpin for any television schedule.”  If this game happens to feature rookie QBs Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz squaring off for the division title, you’ve sat through worse NFC East prime-time games. Of course, Tony Romo could be playing too. As long as the jerseys say Cowboys and Eagles, NBC will be interested.

2. Giants at Redskins

More NFC East! These two games are basically a coin flip. While there are a few other contenders, I don’t think any division is as up-for-grabs between all four teams as this one. I’m sure NBC would be happy to have either NFC East game, but I give this one the edge just because I think the Giants and Redskins are more likely to be deciding the division.

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1. Raiders at Broncos

Here we have a great battle between two teams I think could both make the playoffs out of what could be the best division in football. We could see the defending champions in a must-win game against a nationally popular team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002. One underrated point: This would be a great chance to poach an AFC game from CBS after so many years taking top-tier NFC games from FOX. With Week 17 flex restrictions lifted, that could still be a nice way for the league to make sure all its TV partners are happy.

The season’s 256th and final game would return to the site of the opener. And a cold weather prime-time game at Mile High on New Year’s Day sounds exactly like what January football should be all about, a perfect appetizer for the 11 postseason games to follow.