Last Sunday, Brent Musburger, on CBS' pregame "The NFL Today" show, interviewed Bears Coach Mike Ditka and Vikings Coach Jerry Burns, whose teams were meeting later that day in what was easily the week's most compelling NFL contest. CBS and NBC, understandably, routinely use their pregame shows to help promote each network's better teams and offerings.

But in this case, the Chicago-Minnesota game would be seen on ESPN.

Similarly, this weekend's top matchup features Chicago and San Francisco, two NFC/CBS teams. But that game will be on ABC Monday night. The second-best matchup arguably is Denver at Seattle, two AFC/NBC teams. But that game will be on ESPN Sunday night.

More and more, the marquee teams and memorable matchups are moving away from Sunday afternoons.

CBS and NBC say they expect improved schedules next season, and the NFL says it plans to be fair to all parties involved during the current three-year TV contract. But it seems the league's best interest lies in creating a strong schedule, week in and week out, for its national prime-time dates, particularly on Monday nights. That's good news for ABC and ESPN, and depending with whom you talk, that may or may not be such bad news for CBS and NBC.

"We felt it would be rather important to us to try and help the prime-time schedule since a lot of good things happen when those games work," said Val Pinchbeck, the NFL's director of broadcasting. "There's a spinoff effect -- on sales, promotional value for everyone and so on -- when we're strong in prime time."

"When the ratings are good on Monday nights, it trickles down to the weekend package," said Rich Hussey, NBC Sports' director of program planning. "I guess the positive outweighs the negative {even when NBC loses good games to prime time}. But clearly, we are at a disadvantage this year."

Each offseason, Pinchbeck and Joe Rhein, the NFL's director of administration, determine, after consulting with Commissioner Pete Rozelle, which will be the "national games" -- ABC's 16 Monday night telecasts, ESPN's eight Sunday nighters, two Thanksgiving Day games, four late-season Saturday games and 16 "doubleheader" games. The doubleheader games are 4 p.m. Sunday games that CBS or NBC rotate sending to most of the country.

In choosing these games, Pinchbeck and Rhein look for traditional division rivals and the previous season's playoff teams. Those top matchups, increasingly, have been going to prime time, leaving NBC and CBS with leaner 4 p.m offerings.

This Sunday, for instance, CBS' late-afternoon fare will be the Giants (4-8) at St. Louis (5-7), Detroit (2-10) at Tampa Bay (4-8) and Atlanta (3-9) at the Los Angeles Rams (5-7). Suddenly, Arena Football might seem more appealing to viewers.

"We're not getting our money's worth, in my opinion," said CBS Sports' executive producer, Ted Shaker. "We shouldn't have to lose as many good games as we have. I think the league will give us a better schedule next year."

NBC also expects a better '88 lineup. "I don't think the cable schedule is going to be as gangbusters as it was this year," Hussey said.

But clearly, it seems the NFL would be wise to avoid dog games in prime-time. When Tampa Bay plays Kansas City on a Sunday afternoon, it can be buried on a regional basis and shown to a limited audience. When Tampa Bay plays Kansas City in prime time, it's the only show in town everywhere -- which means many townspeople might not go to the show that night.

"I have no sense that we'll get a weaker schedule next year," said ESPN President Bill Grimes.

Which means things might not get much better for CBS and NBC. And CBS, in particular, has been aching.

In what otherwise probably would have been a stellar season for ratings, CBS saw the third week of the season wiped out (and with it, a Giants-at-Miami blockbuster), followed by three weeks of replacement games and then the unexpected collapse of NFC powers in the nation's largest two markets (the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams), as well as the collapse of one of the few "national" teams, the Dallas Cowboys. On top of all that, the NFC's playoff picture is all but settled with three weeks left in the regular season.

"We don't have a hell of a lot of suspense left, I'll tell you that. Let's say we'll have a wonderful playoff. It could be a pretty lean month of December till the playoffs," Shaker said. "We could put Sigmund Freud in the booth and it wouldn't help, we could have Alfred Hitchcock directing the games and it wouldn't help. The game's the thing."

And, to the agony of CBS and NBC, the best NFL games these days don't start until after dark.