NFL toys with integrity with flex scheduling

Moving Bears-Eagles to Sunday night could motivate both teams to rest key players

Nobody ever has accused the NFL of failing to make a profit.

But you can't help wonder if the league finally has gone too far and maximized television exposure over competitive integrity. The decision to flex the Bears-Eagles game to NBC's "Sunday Night Football" comes with unintended consequences that could include the Lions' chances of making the playoffs.

If the Cowboys beat the host Redskins earlier in the day, the Eagles gain nothing with a victory over the Bears. Is there a scenario in which they could treat the game as a sort of golden off week and rest key players for the season finale against the Cowboys that will determine the NFC East division winner?

If that were to happen, the Lions conceivably could beat the visiting Giants, but effectively be eliminated from the playoffs if the Packers beat the visiting Steelers and the Bears are handed a victory in Philadelphia.

The Bears and Packers control their fate in the NFC North because they play at Soldier Field in the season finale. If either team wins out, they capture the division. Would Eagles coach Chip Kelly take advantage of the opportunity to rest players if that situation arose? Does he owe it to the integrity of the NFL to play everyone, or to the Eagles to be in the best position to win visiting the Cowboys on Dec. 29?

"This is something that conceivably could happen every year,'' said Brian McCarthy, the NFL's vice president of communications. "Generally it hasn't been a concern. You play to win the game. Mathematically, there is a potential for that but teams usually are looking to win going into the playoffs.''

McCarthy conceded there have been cases of teams resting players at the end of the season, usually in Week 17 after their playoff fate is known. He said schedule making is so relevant now because the league has back-loaded divisional games late in the season with the Bears-Packers and Cowboys-Eagles prime examples of such.

Nonetheless, at best the flexing of the Bears-Eagles game is an administrative error. At worst it is a ratings grab that could blow up on the NFL in a significant way.

The game originally scheduled for the Sunday night slot was Patriots-Ravens, another game with playoff implications for both teams. It was moved, according to John Ourand of SportsBusiness Journal, in part so the league could have maximum flexibility for the regular-season finale in Week 17.

McCarthy said one of the reasons the Bears-Eagles game was flexed was because the Eagles have been on prime time only twice this year, on opening day and again in Week 3 and had earned the right to play on national television. The prime-time appearance will be the fifth for the Bears, who nonetheless could be on the following week too against the Packers.

The decision to flex the Bears-Eagles was announced well before the Lions meltdown against the Ravens. Flex scheduling has to be done 12 days before any game until Week 17 when the number shifts to six days.

The league could have avoided the issue of playoff implications outside divisions by flexing the Saints-Panthers game that likely will determine the NFC South winner. But then NBC and the NFL wouldn't benefit from a matchup of teams in the league's second and third largest television markets.

The Lions' playoff fate aside — coach Jim Schwartz can deliver an indignant condemnation from the unemployment line — it's possible Bears-Eagles could be a flat-out dog. Maybe neither team will have sufficient motivation.

If the Lions lose and the Packers win, the Bears have nothing to gain against the Eagles other than earning the third-versus-fourth seed in the NFC. Why shouldn't Bears coach Marc Trestman treat a game in that scenario as a magical week off too, because the finale against the Packers would determine the NFC North title regardless?

Maybe Jay Cutler needs a game to make sure he's in top condition and if he plays, that would mean starting the offensive line and presumably the receivers. But why would Matt Forte get a carry? And could you get a feel-good and rest the starters at halftime?

Nobody will know until Sunday night, but by then both teams could know too much.

Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.

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