Since it started in its current format as the NFL’s main primetime package in 2006, the defining feature of NBC’s Sunday Night Football has been the use of flexible scheduling to ensure the best matchups and showcase the best teams as the season goes along. Well, that’s the theory, anyway; the reality has not always lived up to the initial hype and has at times seemed downright mystifying. Regardless, I’m here to help you figure out what you can and can’t expect to see on Sunday nights on NBC.
A full explanation of all the factors that go into flexible scheduling decisions can be found on my NFL Flexible Scheduling Primer, but here’s the Cliffs Notes version with all the important points you need to know:
- The season can be broken down into three different periods (four if you count the first four weeks where flexible scheduling does not apply at all) for flexible scheduling purposes, each with similar yet different rules governing them: the early flex period, from weeks 5 to 10; the main flex period, from weeks 11 to 16; and week 17. In years where Christmas forces either the Sunday afternoon slate or the Sunday night game to Saturday in Week 16, flex scheduling does not apply that week, and the main flex period begins week 10.
- In all cases, only games scheduled for Sunday may be moved to Sunday night. Thursday and Monday night games, as well as late-season Saturday games, are not affected by Sunday night flexible scheduling (discounting the “flexible scheduling” applied to Saturday of Week 16 this year – see below).
- During the early and main flex periods, one game is “tentatively” scheduled for Sunday night and listed with the Sunday night start time of 8:20 PM ET. This game will usually remain at that start time and air on NBC, but may be flexed out for another game and moved to 1, 4:05, or 4:25 PM ET on Fox or CBS, no less than 12 days in advance of the game.
- No more than two games can be flexed to Sunday night over the course of the early flex period. If the NFL wishes to flex out a game in the early flex period twelve days in advance, CBS and Fox may elect to protect one game each from being moved to Sunday night. This is generally an emergency valve in situations where the value of the tentative game has plummeted since the schedule was announced, namely in cases of injury to a key star player.
- CBS and Fox may also each protect games in five out of six weeks of the main flex period, but all of those protections must be submitted after week 5, week 4 in years where the main flex period begins week 10 (so it is always six weeks before the start of the main flex period).
- No team may appear more than six times across the league’s three primetime packages on NBC, ESPN, and Fox/NFL Network, and only three teams are allowed to appear that often, with everyone else getting five. In addition, no team may appear more than four times on NBC. All teams’ number of appearances heading into this season may be seen here.
- According to the league’s official page, teams are notified when “they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.” However, they rarely make this known to the fans, and the list of each network’s protections has never officially been made public. It used to leak fairly regularly, but has not leaked since 2014.
- In all cases, the NFL is the ultimate arbiter of the schedule and consults with CBS, Fox, and NBC before moving any games to prime time. If the NFL does elect to flex out the Sunday night game, the network whose game is flexed in receives the former tentative game, regardless of which network would “normally” air it under the “CBS=AFC, Fox=NFC” rules, keeping each network’s total number of games constant. At the same time, the NFL may also move games between 1 PM ET and 4:05/4:25 PM ET. However, this feature focuses primarily if not entirely on Sunday night flexible scheduling.
- In Week 17, the entire schedule is set on only six days notice, ensuring that NBC gets a game with playoff implications, generally a game where the winner is the division champion. In theory, NBC may also show an intra-division game for a wild card spot, or a game where only one team wins the division with a win but doesn’t win the division with a loss, but such situations are rare and NBC has never shown them. If no game is guaranteed to have maximum playoff implications before Sunday night in this fashion, the league has been known not to schedule a Sunday night game at all. To ensure maximum flexibility, no protections or appearance limits apply to Week 17. The NFL also arranges the rest of the schedule such that no team playing at 4:25 PM ET (there are no 4:05 games Week 17) could have their playoff fate decided by the outcome of the 1 PM ET games, which usually means most if not all of the games with playoff implications outside Sunday night are played at 4:25 PM ET.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 11 (November 18):
- Selected game: Minnesota @ Chicago.
Week 12 (November 25):
- Selected game: Green Bay @ Minnesota. Which may have already been effectively announced when I made my last Flex Schedule Watch post. Oops.
Week 13 (December 2):
- Tentative game: San Francisco @ Seattle
- Prospects: Aaaaaand the shine has already fallen off the Nick Mullens rose with a last-minute Monday night loss to the lowly Giants. Hard to see the team that was the victim of our first-ever early flex keep its spot at 2-8. Or is it?
- Likely protections: Chargers-Steelers (confirmed, as with other Steelers games listed) (CBS) and Vikings-Patriots (FOX).
- Other possible games: If Niners-Seahawks does keep its spot it’ll be as much because of the paucity of alternatives than anything else, as only the potentially-protected games involve only teams at or above .500. Ravens-Falcons might be best as a battle of 4-5 teams, with all the other games involving teams at 3-6 or worse. Browns-Texans, Panthers-Bucs, Broncos-Bengals, and Rams-Lions are the best of that crop.
- Analysis: The NFL is in a bit of a pickle here. Despite the above-linked tweet seemingly stating in no uncertain terms that all of the listed games would be staying on CBS no matter what, it’s easy to see why some of my commenters think we could be in for another “protection override” to bring in Chargers-Steelers – especially since CBS may need to send its A team to Ravens-Falcons no matter what as a prep run for the Super Bowl in that stadium, barring any crossflexes. If the league does flex in Ravens-Falcons, and in a vacuum that would seem to be the favorite, you could see Cardinals-Falcons in two weeks crossflexed to CBS, which would seem to be a much less attractive game. That could mean CBS would be all too willing to relinquish its protection on Chargers-Steelers. If the league does have to dip into a game involving a team only a game better than the Niners, Rams-Lions would seem to be the most attractive of that bunch, but at that point there really isn’t that much reason not to stick with the tentative.
- Actual selection: Los Angeles Chargers @ Pittsburgh Steelers. Not much to say about this that I didn’t already say above, except that once again the league flexes in a game from one network and sends the tentative to the other network.
Week 14 (December 9):
- Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Oakland
- Prospects: A 6-2-1 team on a five-game win streak against a 1-8 team on a five-game losing streak? Yeah, no.
- Likely protections: Patriots-Dolphins (CBS) and Rams-Bears (FOX) (if Fox needs to protect Eagles games Eagles-Cowboys might be likeliest).
- Other possible games: The Bengals-Chiefs flex maxed the Chiefs out on primetime appearances (Ravens-Chiefs would have been a protection candidate otherwise, though not necessarily topping Pats-Dolphins), but Bengals-Chargers continues to be a good escape valve at 5-4 v. 7-2, even if the league might not want to showcase a game at tiny StubHub Center where half the stadium might be travelling Bengals fans, and that assumes Fox protected Rams-Bears, a battle of division leaders at 9-1 v. 6-3. Falcons-Packers remains a dark horse, and Colts-Texans is emerging late as the Colts go on a win streak.
- Actual selection: Los Angeles Rams @ Chicago Bears. Well this is substantially more interesting, and not just because it’s multiple weeks in advance; this is the second time this season where a game I would assume Fox would have protected if they didn’t need to protect Eagles games ended up getting flexed in. I think Rams-Bears would have still had a numerical edge over Falcons-Packers even in a best-case scenario for that game, though whether or not it would have popped a bigger rating is questionable, and with that in mind if you don’t want to have NBC showcase the StubHub Center situation mentioned above it makes sense to flex it in this early. Meanwhile this is a case where the league sent a tentative that would normally be a CBS game to Fox, so basically the league can send a flexed-out tentative wherever it wants. (Notably, this tentative couldn’t go to CBS without further schedule adjustments because the Niners are already playing a home game on CBS. That may be another reason not to flex in Bengals-Chargers if you feel you can only send a game to Fox if it’s either being flexed out for a Fox game or would normally be a Fox game.)
Week 15 (December 16):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 4-5 v. 9-1. Getting concerningly lopsided with people starting to genuinely ask what’s wrong with the Eagles, now a game and a half out of the playoffs and in position to lose a tiebreaker to the Cowboys with the same record.
- Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and Packers-Bears (FOX).
- Other possible games: Dolphins-Vikings is the only available game involving only teams at or above .500 at 5-5 v. 5-3-1. Given the market sizes and overall name value, that may not be enough to overcome the tentative game bias. I’ve been neglecting Cowboys-Colts which now stands as a battle of 4-5 teams, and obviously the Cowboys are always good to pop a rating, but I’m not sure that overcomes the tentative game bias either. Anything else involves dipping into 3-6 teams (and Hunters-Jaguars is the only game where a 3-6 team is playing a team above .500), and the league isn’t going to flex in a game with a team worse than the worse team in the tentative.
Week 16 (December 23):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Seattle
- Prospects: Heading into the protections this game had the same pair of records as Eagles-Rams, and that’s the case once again now, but the Chiefs come from a much smaller market than the Rams while the Seahawks have considerably worse name value than the Eagles and are staring up at the Rams in the division. Still, both teams are playoff contenders, which could be enough for the game to keep its spot in the penultimate week of the season.
- Likely protections: Steelers-Saints (CBS) and probably nothing, but if something, Bucs-Cowboys or Vikings-Lions (FOX). (This assumes Fox couldn’t protect any of the games singled out for a potential move to Saturday before the season.)
- Other possible games: Falcons-Panthers and, if the Eagles aren’t maxed out, Texans-Eagles are the best available games and both involve 4-5 teams, so their only virtue over the tentative is being less lopsided. Jaguars-Dolphins, Bengals-Browns, and Fox’s potentially protected games are very dark horses.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Eagles-Trumps, Bears-Vikings, Panthers-Saints, Bengals-Steelers.