Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 14

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:

Read moreSunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 14

Last-Minute Remarks on SNF Week 16 Picks

Week 16 (December 23):

  • Tentative game: Kansas City @ Seattle
  • Prospects: Uh-oh. The Chiefs won and the other three AFC division leaders all lost, meaning not only could the Chiefs lock up the AFC West with a Thursday-night win over the Chargers, they would need only one loss each by the Patriots and Texans to sew up the #1 seed before Sunday night. For much of the season, particularly the last few weeks, it looked like how much these two teams still had to play for would outweigh the lack of market size and chance for the Seahawks to catch the Rams for the division compared to Eagles-Rams the previous week, but now this game looks to be in some real danger.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Saints (CBS, confirmed) 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 mentioned on last week’s Watch and their records: Texans (9-4)-Eagles (6-7), Bucs (5-8)-Cowboys (8-5).
  • Impact of Monday Night Football: It would really help the tentative for the Seahawks to win and keep the game from getting further lopsided. A Seahawks loss would make the game more lopsided than Texans-Eagles while putting the Seahawks only a game ahead of the Eagles.
  • Analysis: The biggest point in the tentative’s favor has always been the lack of viable alternatives; the strongest game on paper, Texans-Eagles, is only even a viable option if I’ve been wrong about the London game maxing the Eagles out on primetime appearances, and the second choice, Bucs-Cowboys, may well have been protected. Both games involve teams below .500, and the Bucs’ loss might foreclose them being any sort of real factor in the playoff race (were it not for the Lions they’d be losing a tiebreaker to the freaking Giants whose season was thought to be a disaster); meanwhile the Cowboys need only one win or losses by both Philadelphia and Washington to clinch the NFC East, and while they could catch the Bears for the three seed, nonetheless they might end up not having much more to play for than the Chiefs. Texans-Eagles remains a real concern, though. Even with the Chiefs potentially having nothing to play for, it’d be hard to justify flexing out Chiefs-Seahawks for a game with teams each two games worse than their respective teams in the tentative and where the better team is only a game better than the tentative’s worse team, but if the Seahawks lose? The league would have to seriously think about it… if it weren’t for the possibility that the Eagles’ Week 17 trip to the nation’s capital could decide a wild card spot, potentially conditional on the result of the Texans-Eagles game. Even then, though, I’m not sure the league would be thinking that far ahead, or if they are that it’d be worth the risk of putting on a Chiefs team already resting for the playoffs.
  • Final prediction: Houston Texans @ Philadelphia Eagles (if the Eagles aren’t maxed out on primetime appearances and the Seahawks lose tonight), Kansas City Chiefs @ Seattle Seahawks (no change) (if either of those scenarios doesn’t hold up).
  • Actual selection: Kansas City Chiefs @ Seattle Seahawks (no change). This doesn’t necessarily mean the Eagles are maxed out after all; besides the Week 17 scheduling considerations I already mentioned, Chiefs-Seahawks might have to go to the late game of the CBS doubleheader, where Steelers-Saints is already supposed to be the showcase game and Chiefs-Seahawks would take away from that by being another matchup between playoff teams.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 13

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:

Read moreSunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 13

Last-Minute Remarks on SNF Week 15 Picks

Week 15 (December 16):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
  • Prospects: 5-6 v. 11-1. The Eagles got off the schneid but this game is still worryingly lopsided (and now will mark Rams games in consecutive weeks).
  • Likely protections (CBS protections confirmed): Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and Packers-Bears (FOX).
  • Other possible games mentioned on last week’s Watch and their records: Cowboys (7-5)-Colts (6-6), Dolphins (6-6)-Vikings (6-5-1).
  • Impact of Monday Night Football: The league would feel a lot better about this game keeping its spot if the Eagles can get back to .500 and in a tie a game back of the division lead and a half-game back of the wild card.
  • Analysis: The Colts’ loss to the strug-ga-ling Jaguars takes a lot of the shine off that game, and while the Cowboys’ win is good for it given that the two teams entered the week with the same record, heading into the week I figured a Colts loss was the result Cowboys-Colts could least afford to suffer. I still don’t see Dolphins-Vikings getting flexed in over Cowboys-Colts, and the Cowboys’ win takes away a lot of what’s at stake for the Eagles tonight and (considering the opposition) makes them look like a potentially dangerous playoff team, but I still can’t shake the feeling Eagles-Rams would still be a game Fox would want to feature despite being in the late singleheader spot, especially given the Packers’ struggles. An Eagles loss might put them too far back in traffic and below .500 to really justify keeping that game, but a win might mean making Cowboys-Colts the featured singleheader game might be the best it can hope for under the circumstances.
  • Final prediction: Dallas Cowboys @ Indianapolis Colts (if the Eagles lose tonight), Philadelphia Eagles @ Los Angeles Rams (no change) (if the Eagles win tonight).

In Defense of Conference Championship Games

For many years Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel was the loudest, most virulent voice in opposition to the old Bowl Championship Series. His characterization of the BCS as a result of a cartel of major-college teams and college football as a whole as held hostage by big-money bowl committees and their corporate sponsors shifted the terms of the college football playoff debate in the latter years of the BCS’ existence, especially after the publication of his book Death to the BCS, and his longstanding support of what I used to call the “11/5 system” further encouraged BCS opponents to dream big even as he never explicitly stated the major reason I preferred that system.

As the BCS prepared to be replaced with the College Football Playoff, Wetzel seemed to back off his support of the 11/5 model in the face of conference realignment resulting in the folding of the WAC and, at the time, the potential for a merger between the Mountain West and Conference USA opening the possibility of a sixteen-team playoff following a 9/7 model, diluting the value of the regular season beyond the realm of acceptability. Once, an 11/5 system would have resulted in the top three seeds facing progressively weaker conference champions, with the four and five seeds facing either strong, BCS-challenging mid-major champions or weak at-larges or BCS conference champions, creating real separation on the top few seed lines; now, besides the collapse of the WAC, the departure of Utah and TCU to major conferences, BYU to independence, and Chris Petersen’s departure from Boise State resulting in that program regressing from “BCS-caliber threatening-unbeaten every year” to “one of the stronger mid-major teams that regularly has to fight for the Mountain West championship”, have all had the result that the four- and five-seeds would probably be facing only moderately strong teams from the American and Mountain West, sprinkled in with the occasional Power 5-challenging team or very weak Power 5 champion facing the 5 seed. It’s easy to see why Wetzel’s support drifted to the eight-team playoff with auto bids for Power 5 champions, and it’s probably a good sign for that model that it places Wetzel in agreement with the Dallas Morning News‘ Tim Cowlishaw, once one of the most virulent and prominent defenders of the BCS when I was regularly watching him on Around the Horn. How to get there, however, is another question entirely.

Read moreIn Defense of Conference Championship Games