Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 7

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: 3-3 v. 4-3. 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 and Jaguars-Colts are dark horses.

Week 12 (November 24):

  • Tentative game: Seattle @ Philadelphia
  • Prospects: 5-2 v. 3-4. Potentially lopsided, but the Eagles are only a game back 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 6-1 v. 5-2 that would have the division lead on the line if it were played today. Besides those games, Jaguars-Titans is the closest thing to a dark horse if it’s unprotected.

Week 13 (December 1):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Houston
  • Prospects: 7-0 v. 4-3, potentially lopsided, but even with the Texans 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) Niners-Ravens is the only game on the Sunday slate involving two teams above .500. Rams-Cardinals at least involves a team at that mark, while Titans-Colts is a dark horse.

Week 14 (December 8):

  • Tentative game: Seattle @ LA Rams
  • Prospects: 5-2 v. 4-3. 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 (Chargers-Jaguars could theoretically be moved to the early afternoon but that might be too complicated and still require a move to CBS or giving LA a “double singleheader”).
  • Likely protections: Chiefs-Patriots (CBS) and Niners-Saints if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Ravens-Bills looks like the only real contender for a flex if Niners-Saints was protected; Lions-Vikings had an off chance of being the Fox protection, but that might be looking increasingly iffy now. Titans-Raiders is a dark horse.

Week 15 (December 15):

  • Tentative game: Minnesota @ LA Chargers
  • Prospects: With the Chargers falling to 2-5, and the Eagles being the only team in a tentative at .500 to lose last week, this increasingly looks like the most likely game to be flexed out.
  • 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 might be the strongest option, with CBS’ unprotected game(s) serving as (a) dark horse(s).

Week 16 (December 22):

  • Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
  • Prospects: 5-2 v. 3-3, potentially increasingly concerning if the Bears lose too much contact with the rest of the playoff race.
  • 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.

Week 17 (December 29):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

15 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 7

  1. week 10:
    – Minn(5-2) @ Dal(4-3)

    Week 11:

    – Hou(4-3) @ Balt(5-2)

    Week 12:
    Packers @ 49ers (Panthers vs Saints a great choice as well)
    Fox will keep the Cowboys-Patriots ratings bonanza.

    Week 13:
    – NE(7-0) @ Hou(4-3)

    Week 14:

    – Sea(5-2) @ LA Rams(4-3)
    other choices are good as well:
    49ers @ Saints
    Ravens vs Bills
    Chiefs @ Patriots
    all depends on who is protected

    Week 15:
    Seattle @ Car if Panthers keep winning.
    Rams@ Cowboys
    Could depend on what NFL does with week 14 as well (not using same team two weeks in a row)

    Week 16:
    Tough to pick this far ahead but the Bears are faltering and think this game will be flexed out.

  2. In terms of what’s best for the average NFL fan, what should happen in Week 12 is Packers-49ers should get flexed to Sunday night so it doesn’t have to sit in the shadow of Cowboys-Patriots at 4:25 and Seahawks-Eagles should move to 1:00, where it would still get fairly wide distribution.

    Given the NFL’s conservative history with flexes, what probably will happen is Seahawks-Eagles stays on Sunday Night and Packers-49ers will go to roughly 20% of the country at 4:25. Eagles would probably have to lose to both Buffalo and Chicago to get flexed, in my opinion.

  3. Hello all! No change to the Sunday Night Football game for Week 10, It stays as Minn(6-2) @ Dal(4-3). No shock there. There was 1 change though and that was moving Car.(4-3) @ GB(7-1) from the early slot to the late slot. Now we have 7 early games and 3 late games, as opposed to 8 early games and 2 late games.

    Here were my 3 choices for Week 10’s Sunday Night Football game, in my order of preference.

    #1 – Minn(6-2) @ Dal(4-3)
    #2 – KC(5-3) @ Tenn(4-4)
    #3 – Car(4-3) @ GB(7-1) <—nice to see this was moved to a late slot

    Tomorrow I will give some opinions on Weeks 11 through 17. Also, we should have the Week 16 Saturday games released, so we know which 3 games (of 5 possible choices) will be moving to the NFL Network Saturday Tripleheader and which 2 games will stay on the Sunday schedule.

    Go Pack Go this Sunday here in Los Angeles. 🙂 I still might try and find and a ticket to that game. We'll see.

  4. I do think that if GB/SF stays on track it’s too good to be the B game and go to roughly 20% of the country at 4:25. But Fox doesn’t want to drop DAL/NE so what? Protection override?

  5. Well there’s been no report yet on any changes to Week 16, so with that I won’t be posting until tomorrow.

  6. How I see Sunday 11/24 is this:

    Dal-NE is FOX’s main 1:00 PM game
    GB-SF DH game on FOX
    Seahawks-Eagles stays on SNF.

    Also beginning to think Week 16 could see some unplanned changes that could potentially include Chiefs-Bears shifted to Saturday night and Rams-49ers becoming SNF with the Bears slipping. That might explain the delay in determining the Saturday games.

  7. Rams-49ers and Bills-Patriots would seem to be locks for the Saturday flex in Week 16 – my guess is the third flex will be Houston-Tampa Bay since flexing Chargers-Raiders would possibly create issues in flexing two games for the same markets to the same channel back-to-back.

    Vikings-Chargers remains the one SNF game likely to be flexed in my opinion, although it’s certainly possible Seahawks-Eagles and Chiefs-Bears could wind up getting flexed as well.

  8. That’s a very good opinion, Nathaniel. But here’s the thing. Despite the Vikings vs.
    Chargers on week 15 likely to be flexed out of SNF, here’s the options for alternate SNF on week 15. Packers vs. Bears at Lambeau Field, Rams vs. Cowboys or Seahawks vs. Panthers. Packers vs. Bears at Lambeau Field might be the only option for an alternate SNF on week 15 in my opinion.

  9. Hey there Nathaniel. For the 3 games that will be moving to Saturday in Week 16, you don’t need to worry about any network issues, as all 3 games will exclusively be on NFL Network as a tripleheader.

  10. Nathaniel:

    I think what may actually happen is Rams-49ers goes to SNF and Chiefs-Bears becomes a Saturday night game on NFL Network. That may be part of negotiations that are delaying until Week 10 a determination of the three Saturday night games.

    I see BUF-NE, OAK-LAC and KC-CHI (moved from Sunday night) as the three Saturday night games. Not what the NFL may want to do but I think they might be negotiating that.

  11. One other note:

    I could see FOX decide they want to do a reverse doubleheader on Sunday 11/24, with if so for that week only the main DH game at 1:00 PM and that being Cowboys-Patriots with only Steelers-Bengals remaining at 1:00 PM on CBS while all other games move to 4:05 on CBS/4:25 on FOX and GB-SF the main regional game in that time. It has been done before and might be the solution.

  12. Nah Walt. 3 of the 5 tentative games will be selected. No others, unfortunately. NFL is pretty strict when they say something like that in a press release at the schedule rollout. They can still announce it tomorrow before the Thursday Night Football game.

  13. Too tired to make my comments, about Weeks 11 though 17, tonight. However, I just found this on the Week 16 schedule on…….

    “In week 16, three of five possible matchups currently listed as TBD will be scheduled for Saturday on NFL Network: Houston at Tampa Bay, Buffalo at New England, Detroit at Denver, Oakland at LA Chargers, and San Francisco at LA Rams. Start times and Saturday games for week 16 will be announced no later than following week 10, with the non-Saturday games to be played on Sunday.”

    So this is why no announcement yet. Ha! Wish I had seen that before.

  14. I explained my theory on this last year too, but my assumption is they’re using the Saturday flexes as test runs for limited flexing to the Monday Night schedule in the next TV deal.

    That may also be why they delayed the announcement until post-week 10 – you obviously have a better idea of which games will be strong six weeks out instead of eight, it’s just a question of whether the logistics start getting screwy from scheduling the actual game date so late.

  15. Hi Nathaniel,

    Even though the NFL originally decided on doing this after Week 8, I do applaud them for waiting until after Week 10. Should indeed have a better idea which game would be best for the 3rd game. I think 2 of the games are pretty much locked in. And I don’t see these extra 2 weeks being that much of a dis-service to the fans planning to attend these 5 games, with 3 going to Saturday.

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