Cries from coaches, players and fans that the NFL is biased to popular teams and/or superstar players is one of the few criticisms that the league will always push back on.
Competitive balance is the league’s mantra, after all. Any Given Sunday, and all of that. Most of the conspiracy theories don’t exactly shake out, either. No, the refs weren't trying to set a certain matchup when they missed that pass interference call.
Yet then the NFL does something like set its Week 18 schedule and, well, you can see why the claims of favoritism persist.
Entering the final week of the season, the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks are competing for the final playoff spot in the NFC.
Green Bay simply needs to defeat Detroit to earn the bid.
Seattle needs to beat the Los Angeles Rams and then have the Lions defeat the Packers.
Detroit, meanwhile, needs to beat Green Bay and have Seattle lose.
The obvious thing to do — the proper, fair and smart thing to do — is to have the Detroit-Green Bay and Rams-Seattle games take place at the same time. That way, should Seattle win, it wouldn’t impact Detroit’s competitive drive. The Lions wouldn’t know they were eliminated before they started playing.
This is the exact standard used in other professional leagues under such scenarios, most notably in European soccer, where regular season standings determine the champion.
However, instead of having all three teams play at the same time — namely the late Sunday afternoon window — the NFL flexed the Detroit-Green Bay game to 8:25 p.m. ET Sunday night. Yet Seattle will still play L.A. at 4:25 p.m. ET
That means, if Seattle beats the lowly Rams (5-11), then the Lions would be eliminated prior to kickoff.
Maybe that influences Detroit’s effort. Maybe it doesn’t and the Lions would play just as all out in an effort to win and spoil Green Bay’s season.
No one knows. Seattle shouldn’t have to risk finding out though.
This is a clear advantage for Green Bay, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is as a historic franchise with a far bigger television draw and features one of the league’s biggest stars in quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand the NFL and its broadcast partners would rather have Rodgers and the Packers in the playoffs than Seattle and its QB, Geno Smith.
The NFL, if only to avoid suggestions of bias — which it will vehemently dispute — should have avoided this. Yet the league chose not to.
As such, it either purposely set this up to favor Green Bay or it walked right into the perception that it set this up to favor Green Bay.
Either way, it was completely avoidable. This is a self-inflicted credibility wound.
Certainly NBC is quite pleased to get Rodgers and the Packers in a de facto playoff game on Sunday. Even if Detroit is eliminated before the game, Green Bay has to win … and Seattle fans would be watching to see the Packers lose.
And if the Rams were to somehow upset Seattle, then it’s a Detroit-Green Bay play-in game.
No matter what, the ratings will be huge.
And regardless of the scenario, there is an additional measure of advantage for the Packers with the late time slot. As Rodgers has pointed out weeks ago, Detroit plays its home games in a dome. Green Bay has historically feasted on those kinds of teams when they have to play outside in the Wisconsin winter.
Well, the temperature will be lower at night than in the afternoon. A small thing, absolutely. Still a thing, though.
If the NFL has one thing going for it — and something Seattle fans can rest their hopes on — it's that this Lions team has taken on the personality of their head coach, knee-biting Dan Campbell. The chance to win, the chance to ruin Rodgers and the Packers' season, the chance to just compete, will likely be enough.
But really, no one knows, and this is a theory that didn’t need to be tested.
Seattle deserved better. So did the NFL’s long-standing claim that it favors no single team over another, because no matter what happens, that has taken a beating with this decision.