Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 11

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.

Week 13 (December 2):

  • Selected game: LA Chargers @ Pittsburgh.

Week 14 (December 9):

  • Selected game (announced last week): LA Rams @ Chicago.

Week 15 (December 16):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
  • Prospects: 4-6 v. 10-1. Getting concerningly lopsided with people starting to genuinely ask what’s wrong with the Eagles.
  • Likely protections (CBS protections confirmed): Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and Packers-Bears (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Dolphins-Vikings (5-5 v. 5-4-1) has been joined by Cowboys-Colts (5-5 v. 5-5) as games involving only teams at or above .500, which is a testament to the remarkable run the Colts have been on since starting the season 1-5. If those are the numbers Cowboys-Colts probably gets the edge, even with a slightly worse pair of records, given the respective market sizes and name value, the story the Colts are becoming, Andrew Luck’s star power, and the Cowboys’ general ability to pop a rating. If the Eagles keep falling into crisis and the Rams continue to be world-beaters, that would probably be enough to overcome the tentative game bias. I don’t think any other games don’t involve a team with an outright worse record than the Eagles.

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, 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, the Seahawks aren’t the disaster the Eagles might be becoming and are only a half-game out of a playoff spot, the Chiefs losing the Rams game both makes the game less lopsided (when combined with the Seahawks winning) and puts the Chiefs only a game ahead of Pittsburgh for home field and a game and a half ahead of the Chargers for the division lead, and there aren’t any alternatives as good as what’s available the previous week (and the alternatives there aren’t THAT great), so this might have a better chance of keeping its spot.
  • 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: No games involve only teams at or above .500, which is a problem when the tentative does, potential lopsidedness aside. Falcons-Panthers, Vikings-Lions, and if the Eagles aren’t maxed out on primetime appearances (or get flexed out the previous week, but why would you flex out a team one week and flex them in the next?), Texans-Eagles involve 4-6 teams at least.

Week 17 (December 30):

  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Eagles-Trumps, Colts-Titans, Bears-Vikings, Panthers-Saints, Bengals-Steelers.

15 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 11

  1. My thoughts:

    Week 15 will largely depend on what happens with the Eagles this and next week. If they are still guaranteed to be in the NFC East hunt by the time the decision must be made, that game stays, if not, Cowboys-Colts will become an increasingly likely favorite for the slot.

    Week 16: Would not be surprised if Steelers-Saints got a “protection override,” especially if there is no guarantee NBC gets a game in Week 17. If somehow the Giants actually get back in the hunt at 6-7 when the decision has to be made AND they actually have a shot at winning the NFC East, then Giants-Colts suddenly is a possibility when NO ONE could have anticipated that.

    Week 17: Order to me is unchanged in order of preference by NBC concerning “win and in” games:

    1. Eagles-Redskins (NFC East)
    2. Bears-Vikings (NFC North)
    3. Panthers-Saints (NFC South)
    4. Colts-Titans (AFC South/Wild Card)

  2. Morgan Wick, who is referenced each year by the Washington Post for these Flex Scheduling posts, is posting background info each week for the new readers who discover this thread, and who do not have the full background that some of you commentors have. Please be respectful with your comments.

  3. Karl, you can change up the first part of the email address but I can still see your IP address. I’m letting your sockpuppet comments that aren’t pretending to be Walt remain in place for now (because I can actually deal with criticism of how I do things around here), but if you continue to engage in sockpuppetry I’m going to have to block your IP address. I really don’t want to have to go through the hassle of trying to get everyone to sign up for an account to comment (merely setting up the infrastructure for doing so would not only take up a lot of my time, it pretty much defeated my efforts to have forums around here years ago).

    For the record, if I feel the need to do any updating of my opening spiel I’ll do so in the offseason. I was hoping the new flex schedule primer page would allow me to do away with the spiel but it wound up going on so long I had to bring in a new version of the spiel to serve as a Cliffs Notes version.

  4. Thanks Morgan:

    My thoughts after Sunday:

    If the Colts win Sunday, EVEN IF Monday night the Eagles get to 6-6 (and very possibly a tie for 1st in the NFC East) with a win over the Redskins, Cowboys-Colts is moved to SNF anyway because of the likelihood we have another ugly Eagles road game similar to Eagles-Rams, especially since the Rams may need every win to not only keep pace with the Saints, but also avoid risking losing the #2 seed to the Bears, who might very well run the table and finish 13-3 (and whom the Rams face on SNF in Week 14). You could see a scenario where Pats-Steelers becomes the sole 1:00 PM game on CBS with 1:00 PM and for that week only treated as the doubleheader game, with save for maybe Lions-Bills at 1:00 on FOX all other games moved to 4:05/4:25 (or even straight at 4:25), with Eagles-Rams becoming the main game either on FOX or CBS at 4:25 PM (and if so, Dolphins-Vikings moved to FOX from CBS at 4:05/4:25). That can be the way to do it, making for that week only 1:00 PM the main game and all the regional games at 4:25 (not unprecedented, I remember CBS actually doing this in 1987 when they had a single game that was their doubleheader game at 1:00 PM, which was notable because the 4:00 PM games that week included what turned out to be the final game for the then-St. Louis Football Cardinals in STL before they moved to Phoenix for the 1988 season, that against the Giants).

    Week 16 remains unchanged from above.

    Week 17: Unchanged except Colts-Titans now moves up to the third most likely game NBC would want as the SNF finale and likely moves up to second if the Bears run away with the NFC North. Eagles-Redskins remains most likely right now.

  5. Obviously I meant in the last post with Eagles Rams, that could be very similar to Eagles-Saints, which is why I think the NFL might very well opt to deal with the logistical nightmare of for one week moving Pats-Steelers to 1:00 and except for Lions-Bills, ALL games scheduled for 1:00 PM to 4:05/4:25, with Eagles-Rams the main 4:25 game on CBS (or the main singleheader game on FOX) with if Eagles-Rams wound up on CBS, Dolphins-Vikings moved to FOX and to 4:05 or 4:25 PM (depending on how that would work in a week where the main doubleheader game is at 1:00).

  6. After the Monday night game, now I suspect we could wind up with the first case of a team in the Eagles being flexed OUT of SNF one week and flexed IN to SNF the next:

    I suspect Eagles-Rams will be flexed out for Cowboys-Colts (with if so possibly wholesale changes to make Pats-Steelers the doubleheader game, but at 1:00 PM with what normally would be 1:00 PM games at 4:05/4:25 save for Bills-Lions since one game has to be in each time slot regardless) in Week 15 while if the Eagles beat the Redskins this coming week and especially if they then win the rematch with the Cowboys in two weeks (Week 14), Texans-Eagles gets flexed IN for Week 16 as that game could wind up not only being big in deciding the NFC East, but also potentially for seeding in the AFC, especially if the Steelers beat the Pats in Week 15 and the Texans don’t lose.

  7. I can’t I don’t understand the point of this walt gecko character . every week he tries to one-up Morgan in the comments section by doing his own exact version of this column. We are here to read Morgan’s opinions. If you want to publish your own articles start your own website. You don’t contribute anything other than trying to compete with Morgan to beat him to the punch on the possible Sunday night flexes. It’s flat-out disrespectful

  8. Wally/Karl:

    You just can’t stand the fact that I have strong opinions it seems, while Jeff (where has he been of late?) also provides solid views.

  9. Walt,

    I appreciate your analysis and efforts into explaining what you think are the possible scenarios for Sunday Night Football, but I just have a question about what you’ve posted. If the Eagles were still in the division race, wouldn’t it make more sense to just stick with the tentative of Eagles-Rams week 15? I know the Cowboys are a big draw no matter what, but the tentative still has another NFC East team and a huge market in Los Angeles with a possible Super Bowl contender that still has to keep winning to keep pace with the Saints. At the beginning of the year, I thought that Eagles-Rams would be the best primetime game of the entire season and never thought it could be flexed out, but here we are with the Eagles struggling so there is still a chance it could be flexed out.

    I could certainly see Texans-Eagles being flexed in week 16, but with the Seahawks continuing to win and stay relevant in the playoff chase, Chiefs-Seahawks could stay on Sunday Night Football, similarly to Eagles-Rams because the Chiefs would also need to keep winning to fend off the Steelers, Patriots and Texans for home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

  10. Good point on Chiefs-Seahawks, especially since the Seahawks actually have the last Wild Card spot now.

    Still think regardless Eagles-Rams is flexed out for Cowboys-Colts in Week 15 as Eagles-Rams has all the making of a game similar to Eagles-Saints a couple of weeks ago even if the Eagles do get to 6-6 Monday night. Eagles have a ton of injuries in their secondary which likely doesn’t show up as much in divisional match-ups but likely will be shredded by the Rams.

    With the Seahawks actually owning the last Wild Card spot right now, Chiefs-Seahawks has a MUCH better chance of staying in Week 16 than it did a couple of weeks ago. That win in Charlotte was HUGE for the Seahawks, and likely now that I think of it likely does keep that game there as long as the Seahawks take care of business against the 49ers this week.

    Week 17 is looking more and more like EITHER Eagles-Redskins for the NFC East OR Colts-Titans for a Wild Card unless the Chargers falter later and suddenly both wild cards are in play the last week OR the Broncos by then have worked their way into the mix for the last WC spot.

  11. Walt,

    We’ll see about the upcoming weeks, but I can understand where you are coming from with regards to possible flexes. The league and NBC could be worried about Eagles-Rams being a blowout, but it’s the NFL and anything can happen so it will be interesting to see if Cowboys-Colts does indeed replace it.

    I’m still not sure about which game will be flexed in for week 17, but if the NFC East title is on the line, I have to believe Eagles-Redskins will be the choice, and here is my reasoning. It’s no secret that the networks love NFC East divisional games, but for some reason, the Redskins were not scheduled to appear on Sunday Night Football at all. If the NFC East is on the line, NBC would probably love to show the Redskins at least once to hopefully draw higher ratings.

  12. True, the networks love the NFC East, and the Redskins were inexplicably kept off prime time other than their Monday nighters (Thanksgiving was an afternoon game). Eagles-Redskins depending on how things go down likely is the favorite to close out the season (I suspect the Cowboys will falter).

  13. Now that the Cowboys beat the Saints I expect Colts-Cowboys to be flexed to Sunday night in week 15. Kind of bummed as a Rams fan with tickets to the Rams-Eagles game, but I will gladly take it with a Saints loss if it gives the Rams home field through the NFC Championship game 🙂

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