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Report: Obscure broadcast contract term drove Week 16 flex decision

AFC Championship - Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates after a touchdown to tie up the game against the New England Patriots in the second quarter during their AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

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Tuesday’s decision to replace the Week 16 Sunday night game between the Patriots and Ravens with a showdown between the Bears and Eagles surprised many.

And for good reason. The Ravens are chasing the No. 6 seed, the Patriots are chasing the No. 1 seed while trying to hold off the Bengals for the No. 2 seed, and the two teams have met in the last two AFC title games. (That said, Bears-Eagles has significant playoff implications, too.)

So why did the NFL swap the games? According to John Ourand of SportsBusiness Journal, the league made the decision in part to have maximum flexibility for the regular-season finale in Week 17.

The current broadcast contracts (which expire this year) require that the gap between games pilfered from CBS and FOX for Sunday night be no more than three. If Pats-Ravens hadn’t been flexed, the gap would have been at three, with CBS losing 25 and FOX losing 22. Without taking a game from FOX for Week 16, only FOX could have lost a game for Week 17. Now, both networks are in play for Week 17.

The goal for the league (and it’s always an NFL decision, not an NBC decision) when selecting the prime-time game in Week 17 is to identify a game that has playoff implications unaffected by any of the outcomes in the other 15 games. That becomes easiest when two teams are squaring off for a division title, with the winner securing a playoff spot and the loser earning a trip home.