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 and last – 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 may receive 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. More rarely, 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 last year was the first time it showed such a game. 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 17):
- Tentative game: Chicago @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 3-2 v. 3-3. In decent shape at the moment, but could become vulnerable if the teams are mediocre enough.
- Likely protections: Patriots-Eagles (CBS) and Cowboys-Lions (FOX).
- Other possible games: Texans-Ravens is the only game involving two teams above .500. Cardinals-Niners, Jaguars-Colts, Saints-Bucs, and (before the Thursday night game) Broncos-Vikings are/were dark horses.
Week 12 (November 24):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ Philadelphia
- Prospects: 5-1 v. 3-3. Potentially lopsided, but the Eagles hold a share of the division lead and that division is the always-popular NFC East.
- Likely protections: Jaguars-Titans if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Patriots (FOX).
- Other possible games: We have a Sunday night tentative with potential wild-card and division implications for both teams and a late-afternoon feature game pitting two big names on top of their divisions with one being unbeaten, yet we also have Packers-Niners, a game between two teams with one loss between them that’s pinned to the late afternoon slot and seemingly doomed to limited distribution. That’s not even getting into Saints-Panthers, a game pitting 5-1 v. 4-2 that would have the division lead on the line if it were played today. Giants-Bears and, before Thursday night, Broncos-Bills are/were dark horses.
Week 13 (December 1):
- Tentative game: New England @ Houston
- Prospects: 6-0 v. 4-2; even if the Texans are around .500 it would be difficult to kick the world-beating Patriots out of this spot.
- Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs (CBS) and Niners-Ravens, Packers-Giants, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games; even with no teams on a bye (which has not always been the case on Thanksgivings past) Raiders-Chiefs and Niners-Ravens are the only games on the Sunday slate involving two teams above .500. Titans-Colts and Rams-Cardinals are dark horses.
Week 14 (December 8):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 5-1 v. 3-3. The Seahawks could be defending a wild-card berth and contending for the division lead, but if the Rams continue to be mediocre the game could be vulnerable. A potential complication: the Chargers are currently slated to play in the 4:05 ET slot on Fox, so either LA team would need to serve as a CBS undercard to Chiefs-Patriots if this is flexed out.
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Patriots (CBS) and Niners-Saints if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Ravens-Bills is a strong contender, and Lions-Vikings had an off chance of being the Fox protection. Colts-Bucs, Titans-Raiders and (again before the Thursday night game) Broncos-Texans are dark horses.
Week 15 (December 15):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: 4-2 v. 2-4. Even with some of the other tentatives seeing teams falling to 3-3 this may still be the most likely game to be flexed out, independent of the rest of the slate.
- Likely protections: Texans-Titans, Jaguars-Raiders, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Cowboys if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Bears-Packers would probably be protected if one of the teams in Fox’s current late-afternoon feature game wasn’t the Cowboys. Seahawks-Panthers is also an option, and CBS’ unprotected game(s), Bills-Steelers, and Bucs-Lions are dark horses, as would have been, again, the Broncos’ game in Kansas City if I had gotten this up before their Thursday night clash.
Week 16 (December 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: 4-2 (now 5-2) v. 3-2, a game with likely playoff implications for both teams.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Browns if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: As with last year, I’m assuming the games that have been set aside for a potential move to Saturday can’t be protected; Rams-Niners would likely be protected if that weren’t the case, and Bills-Patriots would also be intriguing if it didn’t get picked by NFLN. Panthers-Colts is the best option available, with Saints-Titans and Cardinals-Seahawks as dark horses (as would be Ravens-Browns if it’s not protected). Texans-Bucs and Raiders-Chargers are interesting dark-horse games to look at if they don’t get moved to Saturday.
Week 17 (December 29):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.
9 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 6”
Basically a copy-and-paste of last week:
Week 11: Unlikely any change unless one or both completely tank between now and the end of Week 9.
Week 12: Almost certain to matter for at least a wild card if not for the NFC East and West.
Week 13: AFC South is still very weak and Texans could be 5-6 when the time comes to decide and this likely stays if so.
Week 14: Again, don’t see any changes as Seahawks-Rams is likely to have wild card and/or NFC West implications.
Week 15: If the Chargers get their act together, Vikings-Chargers could have playoff implications in both conferences, so again, no change.
Week 16: Unless the Bears collapse, this game against the Chiefs is a potential Super Bowl preview, so again, unlikely.
Week 17: WAY too early to tell. I suspect the NFL hopes somehow the Eagles and Giants are fighting for a playoff spot the last week so that can be SNF.
Thanks for the post Morgan. It’s appreciated. I will have more to say tomorrow and Tuesday nights, but there’s a note that I’d like to mention about the Week 8 schedule. The NFL DID announce a change to the schedule on Friday, October 11th, on nflcommunications.com, but not on Twitter, Clearly I missed this announcement.
The change is just a swap of 2 CBS games. Raiders at Texans moved from the early slot and the Broncos at Colts game moved to the early.
Sorry for missing this! Oops! Go Pack Go on next Sunday Night Football’s Week 8 game.
Noticed that. I suspect local officials in Indy originally wanted that game in the late slot but agreed to move it up.
One thing the NFL should do in its next TV contract is allow in certain circumstances for Monday night games to be flexed, but ONLY if it moves a game out of the 4:05 singleheader slot. In this case, I would have done that and moved Panthers-49ers to Monday night Football with Dolphins-Steelers moved to FOX and that or maybe Bucs-Titans put in “purgatory.”
Any thoughts about bengals dolphins getting flexed for the most terrible game(week 16)
Any chance bengals dolphins week 16 (the tank bowl?)
Here’s my comments for how I’d like to see Week 9 of Sunday Night Football flex scheduling.
#1 – Minn(5-2) @ KC(5-2)
#2 – NE(7-0) @ Balt(5-2) <—the tentative and game that will stay in its place
I only have the Vikings/Chiefs matchup as my #1 because I think it might be a better matchup. Though with Mahomes out, maybe not. As for Patriots @ Ravens, I guess we'll see how good the Belichick-led team is. They'll probably be 6 pt favorites. Also, can those Pats find a way to corral Lamar Jackson? I say yes, because I believe they are that good.
In Week 9 there are only 6 games in the early spots and 4 in the late spots due to a London game way early. Nothing is going to change with the Week 9 schedule, but I will still check out nflcommunications.com tomorrow to verify.
I will have some comments on Weeks 10 through 17 tomorrow night. 4am Pacific Time comes early and I should try and get 5+ hrs of sleep tonight. Ha!
Go Pack Go!!! 🙂
49ers Packers will replace Seahawks eagles. Morgan is lazy
Here’s my comments about Weeks 10 through 17. I will have my final comments about Week 10 after Monday Night Football next week.
#1 – Minn(5-2) @ Dal(4-3) <—the tentative and guaranteed game
#2 – Car(4-2) @ GB(6-1)
#1 – Hou(4-3) @ Balt(5-2)
#2 – Chi(3-3) @ LA Rams(4-3) <—the tentative that could get shaky if the Bears falter these next 2 weeks
#3 – Ariz(3-3-1) @ SF(6-0)
Tentative – Sea(5-2) @ Phil(3-4) if Eagles falter, this could be replaced. Panthers @ Saints, Cowboys @ Patriots, & Packers @ 49ers are looking attractive as replacements
Tentative – NE(7-0) @ Hou(4-3) if Texans falter just a bit and Patriots keep winning, this could be replaced, as it could be an ugly game. 49ers @ Ravens, Raiders @ Chiefs, & Rams @ Cardinals are waiting in the wings
Tentative – Sea(5-2) @ LA Rams(4-3) is looking good to stay, but other options are 49ers @ Saints, Ravens @ Bills, & Chiefs @ Patriots
Tentative – Minn(5-2) @ LA Chargers(2-5) is looking like the best chance for a flex out at this point, to me. Other options are Seahawks @ Panthers, Bears @ Packers, & Rams @ Cowboys
Tentative – KC(5-2) @ Chi(3-3), but might have trouble if the Bears falter.
This week is tough to project now, as 3 of 5 Pre-selected matchups will be moving to Saturday for a 3 game tripleheader on NFL Network. Those potential games are to be decided after Week 8, at the latest. In other words, after this week. They are: Rams @ 49ers(likely Sat), Bills @ Patriots(likely Sat), Raiders @ Chargers, Lions @ Broncos, & Texans @ Buccaneers. Not sure who the NFL will select as the 3rd game between those 3.
Cowboys @ Eagles & Cardinals @ Seahawks are the only other 2 options to me, at the moment.
Bears @ Vikings, Saints @ Panthers, 49ers @ Seahawks, & Cardinals @ Rams are the only 4 matchups worth anything at the moment.
Go Pack Go this coming Sunday night at Arrowhead!!! 🙂
That was the fake Walt Gekko who said that.
Right now, it’s too early. That Seahawks-Eagles matchup could very well have major implications for both the NFC East and NFC West as it’s shaping up to be a year where the winner of the NFC East could be 8-8 or 9-7.