The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 17 game at Atlanta isn't the sort of divisional winner-take-all showdown that seemed like a possibility four months ago, but it's still potentially a significant date on the NFL calendar.
The NFL has announced that it will utilize its flex-scheduling option to push the January 1 Buccaneers-Falcons game from its original 1:00 p.m. ET time slot to 4:15 p.m., thus making it available to a larger national audience. That is one of at least three games that will be "flexed" during the league's final week of regular season play.
A year ago, the Buccaneers saw several of their December games moved to more prominent time slots as they chased down a potential playoff spot. This time around, Tampa Bay has been eliminated from the NFC playoff race but they might end up in a very prominent spoiler role. The Buccaneers have already beaten the Falcons once this season, in Week Three in Tampa, and depending upon the results of games on Sunday and Monday night, could seriously affect Atlanta's postseason plans with another win.
The Falcons and first-place Saints will meet on Monday night in New Orleans, with the NFC South title still in doubt. If Atlanta wins, they will remain in contention for the division crown, needing to beat the Buccaneers in Week 17 while the Saints lose at home to the Carolina Panthers. The league has not yet decided whether or not it will move that Saints-Panthers game to a later time, as well.
Thus, the Falcons could go into their regular-season finale against the Buccaneers with a chance to win the South. Obviously, that would make the game one of the more important ones left on the NFL schedule, given that four other division titles have already been settled.
Even if – or perhaps especially if – the Saints win on Monday night and clinch the division title, next Sunday's game in Atlanta could be critical to the Falcons. Atlanta would potentially be fighting for one of two Wild Card spots at that point, and if the Chicago Bears beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, the race would be tight.
The NFL has already announced the flexing of three games for next weekend. In addition to the Bucs-Falcons move, the schedule will also see a change for the Dallas-New York Giants game and the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game. Dallas and New York, both 8-7 heading into the last game, will be fighting for the NFC East title. Cincinnati is still trying to secure a playoff berth while Pittsburgh could still win the AFC North and secure a first-round bye.
In addition, the league will announce game times for the Week 17 Carolina-New Orleans game and the Chicago-Minnesota game after the Week 16 schedule is completed on Monday.