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: 3-4 v. 5-3. Just two weeks ago it looked like the Rams were going to be the team to drag this game down. Definitely vulnerable.
- Likely protections: Patriots-Eagles (CBS) and Cowboys-Lions (FOX).
- Other possible games: Texans-Ravens is the only game involving two teams above .500, though Jaguars-Colts involves a .500 team and could have division and wild-card implications. Cardinals-Niners was the next-best possible competitor before the Thursday night game slid the Cardinals back down to 3-5-1.
- Analysis: The biggest problem here is that the Texans and Ravens don’t bring nearly the audience or buzz that the Bears and Rams would, records aside, and Jaguars-Colts is even worse. The best-case scenario for a flex involves Texans-Ravens standing at 6-3 v. 6-2 with the Ravens having just knocked off the previously-unbeaten Patriots and bringing an exciting quarterback in Lamar Jackson, but the Texans being without J.J. Watt (again), while the Bears fall to 3-5 against the 5-3 Rams and start painting a picture of a team in freefall, even with the latest loss coming to a decent Eagles team at 5-4. But there’s enough of a yawning chasm in the name value of the respective teams I’m still not sure it would overcome the tentative game bias even in that circumstance, and if you reverse the outcome – with the Bears improving to 4-4, Texans-Ravens falling to 5-4 v. 5-3, and Jaguars-Colts having the same pair of records or worse – there’s no question it wouldn’t overcome the tentative game bias. (And the only way for Jaguars-Colts to conceivably improve on Texans-Ravens’ worst case is for the Colts to win and improve to 6-2 v. 5-4, and honestly Texans-Ravens might still get the nod ahead of it in that case even if the league did pull the flex, which shows you the challenges facing that game.) Notably, the league announced a crossflex for Week 11 earlier this week but did not include a Week 11 schedule, “final” or otherwise, the way they did for Week 10, so at the very least further schedule changes are at least under consideration, though that may just involve further crossflexes and afternoon time changes.
Week 12 (November 24):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ Philadelphia
- Prospects: 6-2 v. 4-4. Might be a skosh lopsided, but even then the Eagles are only a half-game back of leading the ever-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, although the Panthers falling to 4-3 causes that game to lose some luster. Jaguars-Titans pits a pair of 4-4 teams but would have trouble standing out against this competition.
Week 13 (December 1):
- Tentative game: New England @ Houston
- Prospects: 8-0 v. 5-3, potentially lopsided, but even if the Texans end up 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. Titans-Colts at least involves a team at that mark, while Rams-Cardinals would have been a dark horse before the Thursday night game.
Week 14 (December 8):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 6-2 v. 5-3. 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: Both teams won last week, but 6-2 v. 3-5 is still disturbingly lopsided.
- 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 Texans-Titans improving and Jaguars-Raiders and Bills-Steelers serving as dark horses.
Week 16 (December 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: 5-3 v. 3-4, potentially increasingly concerning if the Bears lose too much contact with the rest of the playoff race, and now the Chiefs are slipping as well though they still lead the division.
- 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 (before the Thursday night game) Cardinals-Seahawks as dark horses.
Week 17 (December 29):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 10, which the selection of the Week 16 Saturday games seems to have been postponed to, though the only sign of that is if you pull up the Week 16 schedule page in desktop mode.