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 17; and week 18. 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 are not affected by Sunday night flexible scheduling (discounting the “flexible scheduling” applied to Saturdays in December in recent years – 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, historically in five out of six weeks of the main flex period (whether or not they received an additional protection with the expansion of the main flex period an additional week is unknown), 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 18, 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 2018 and 2020, respectively, were the first times it showed such games. 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. However, beginning this season, the NFL will also move two games to Saturday to be simulcast on ESPN and ABC.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 11 (November 21):
- Selected game: Pittsburgh @ LA Chargers.
Week 12 (November 28):
- Selected game: Cleveland @ Baltimore (presumably).
Week 13 (December 5):
- Tentative game: San Francisco @ Seattle
- Prospects: 4-5 v. 3-6. The Niners are only a half-game out of the third wild card and if they can play like the team that beat the Rams they could make a push, and the Seahawks have Russell Wilson back, but this is still a game that will have at least one team below .500 when the decision needs to be made.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Steelers (CBS) and Cardinals-Bears, Bucs-Falcons, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Chargers-Bengals pits two teams above .500, Broncos-Chiefs involves a team at that mark, and Bucs-Falcons involves a team just behind that mark.
- Analysis: There was a time when it seemed like this game was a shoe-in to lose its spot, but even below-.500 teams can contend for wild cards in the expanded format, the Monday night game raised the prospect of the Niners not being as bad as they’d looked in the season to this point, and this is a thoroughly uninspiring slate. Bucs-Falcons is a bit lopsided, Broncos-Chiefs isn’t much better if at all, and Chargers-Bengals is a battle between a pair of 5-4 teams and while it pits two hot young quarterbacks the teams themselves don’t have much in the way of name value. Suppose the Niners and Seahawks win to bring the game to 5-5 v. 4-6 with the Seahawks having just knocked off the division-leading Cardinals; would even a 6-4 v. 6-4 Chargers-Bengals game be able to overcome the tentative game bias in that circumstance? On the other hand, if both teams in the tentative lose, with the Niners losing to the lowly Jaguars after looking so impressive against the Rams, I’m not sure you can afford not to pull the flex; the question is whether it’s worth it if your only options involve teams at or below .500 when the 4-6 Niners wouldn’t be much worse than that and even with the 3-7 Seahawks involved, the game wouldn’t be lopsided and could have playoff implications.
Week 14 (December 12):
- Tentative game: Chicago @ Green Bay
- Prospects: 3-6 v. 8-2. At this point the Packers are more concerned about the first-round bye than the division.
- Likely protections: Bills-Bucs (CBS) and Cowboys-Football Team (FOX).
- Other possible games: Ravens-Browns and Raiders-Chiefs are the only unprotected games involving two teams at or above .500, and NBC is already slated to air the other halves of those divisional matchups. Falcons-Panthers and Niners-Bengals both involve teams at 4-5, but they probably need to improve by more than that to overcome the tentative game bias.
Week 15 (December 18):
- Tentative game: None (2 games to be moved to Saturday). As an experiment in preparation for the introduction of Monday night flex scheduling next year (and Saturday of Week 18 this year), I’m including a separate segment for analysis of the games that could be moved to Saturday this week. The NFL’s schedule page says that the games to be moved will be announced “no later than four weeks prior to game day”, which I read as before the bulk of the Week 11 slate, but we haven’t gotten an announcement yet as I write this, so let’s go another round!
- Possible games: Jets (2-7)-Dolphins (3-7), RedHogs (3-6)-Eagles (4-6), Raiders (5-4)-Browns (5-5), Panthers (5-5)-Bills (6-3), Patriots (6-4)-Colts (5-5).
- Analysis: Well, things just got shaken up a bit! The worst-case scenario for Raiders-Browns happened and if the games moving were announced by the end of the week they might be the odd game out, and frankly at this point if the games aren’t announced until after Week 11 the NFC East game might be a contender. My hunch is that any of the 5-5 teams winning locks up their respective game for a move to Saturday unless all three do, in which case the edge might go to Panthers-Bills and Pats-Colts; with the decision coming so far in advance and all the games being close, I could see the league take Panthers-Bills and Pats-Colts from a “battle for the AFC East” perspective, especially if the teams remain a half-game apart with the Patriots maybe even taking the division lead (and especially especially with the Colts playing the Bills this week). If push comes to shove Raiders-Browns probably has the most name value, then Pats-Colts, then Panthers-Bills, but I’m not sure that’s as clear as it was last week.
Week 15 (December 19):
- Tentative game: New Orleans @ Tampa Bay
- Prospects: 5-4 v. 6-3, a battle of the top two teams in the division – assuming the Saints hold up without Jameis Winston.
- Likely protections: Bengals-Broncos if anything (CBS) and Packers-Ravens or Seahawks-Rams (FOX).
- Other possible games: As usual, assuming the games set aside for a potential move to Saturday can’t be protected. If Packers-Ravens is protected, Titans-Steelers and Bengals-Broncos are the best of the Sunday afternoon slate, with the former being lopsided and the latter involving a team at .500, currently making it no better than whichever game doesn’t move to Saturday and worse than the tentative. Falcons-Niners is a dark horse.
Week 16 (December 26):
- Tentative game: Washington @ Dallas
- Prospects: 3-6 v. 7-2. The Cowboys have escaped last season’s NFC East mediocrity, which just makes this look lopsided, but the only way this likely gets flexed out is if the Cowboys could have the division on lockdown and have their seed locked in, and since this is now the third-to-last week of the season and the Cowboys are currently in a tie for the 3 seed, that’s not likely.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Bengals, Bills-Patriots, Steelers-Chiefs, Broncos-Raiders, or nothing (CBS) and Bucs-Panthers, Bears-Seahawks, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: I listed four protection options for CBS this week and somehow all four currently pit two teams at or above .500, along with Bucs-Panthers. Rams-Vikings is a dark horse.
Week 17 (January 2):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ Green Bay
- Prospects: 4-5 v. 8-2. The Vikings are only barely below .500 and only a half-game out of the third wild card, but this is still lopsided. If there’s a chance Green Bay won’t have anything to play for by game time this might be a lock to be flexed out, though right now they’re only clinging to the first-round bye by a tiebreaker.
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Bengals or Broncos-Chargers (CBS) and Rams-Ravens or Cardinals-Cowboys (FOX).
- Other possible games: Pretty much comes down to whichever game Fox didn’t protect, with Chiefs-Bengals lagging behind and Panthers-Saints, Raiders-Colts, and Broncos-Chargers all involving teams at .500. Falcons-Bills is a dark horse.
Week 18 (January 9):
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Games to watch: Panthers-Bucs, Saints-Falcons, Steelers-Ravens, Bengals-Browns, Chargers-Raiders, Chiefs-Broncos. The AFC East games could be dark horses as well.
18 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 10”
Jeff (from the prior thread):
Thanks for noting the Week 15 change. That as I remember was originally an Amazon Prime/Twitch-only game, but I guess they decided against doing that this time.
As for Week 13, I now think 49ers-Seahawks stays with the 49ers beating the Rams and only being at worst 1 1/2 games out of the last Wild Card when they next play. Right now, only the Lions are out of contention in the NFC.
Week 14 will largely depend on the next two weeks. Bears also are 1 1/2 games out of the last Wild Card right now and if they can be 5-6 when that decision has to be made, it may keep the game in Lambeau on SNF. Otherwise, Falcons-Panthers (Panthers hold the last NFC Wild Card with the Falcons a half-game back) right now looks to be the game to move into that slot, especially with Cam Newton back in Carolina.
No Change for Week 15 given the Saints likely will still be in the NFC Wild Card hunt at worst when that is decided.
Week 16: If the Football Team can stay in striking distance of the last Wild Card by the time this is decided, then it stays. Otherwise, whichever of Steelers-Chiefs or Broncos-Raiders is NOT protected by CBS moves to SNF.
Week 17: Will depend on whether the Vikings remain in Wild Card contention by the time the decision has to be made. If they are, Vikings-Packers stays, if not, Cardinals-Cowboys OR Rams-Ravens (whichever is NOT protected by FOX) moves into that slot.
Week 18: Too early for the SNF game, but I would not be surprised if BOTH NFC East games (Football Team-Giants AND Cowboys-Eaqles) make up the Saturday ESPN/ABC doubleheader since there could be a ton of games that decide the 6 and 7 seeds in the NFC.
Forgot to note on Week 15:
The two Saturday games I suspect right now will be Football Team-Eagles (4:30) and Panthers-Bills (8:15).
Even if the Vikings are in the playoff hunt it’s definitely getting flexed because Cardinals-Cowboys is currently at 1pm, The NFL wouldn’t keep a good game over a better game featuring “America’s Team”. When garbage Cowboys games are in primetime there is no way Az-Dal will be at 1pm. Rams-Ravens is at 4:25 and both teams have good records. So 90 percent chance Vikings-Packers is flexed
Maybe you’re right about Vikings vs. Packers possible being flexed out of SNF late this season. But I don’t see Packers vs. Bears at Lambeau week 14 being flexed out of SNF this season because the NFL loves having the Packers vs. Bears game at Lambeau Field SNF.
Also Raiders-Broncos isn’t getting flexed. Both teams are in free fall and Steelers-Chiefs is 4:25 which the NFL sees as a national window. So If Washington-Dallas is flexed it will be Patriots-Bills or Ravens-Bengals probably Ravens-Bengals because Patriots-Bills is on Monday night
The Falcons vs. Jaguars game on week 12 got switched to Fox and the kickoff for that game will be at noon.
Here’s my take on things so far. (Reposted from Week 9 SNF Flex Scheduling Watch)
# 1 – Rams(7-3) @ Packers(8-2)
# 2 – Titans(8-2) @ Patriots(6-4)
# 3 – Steelers(5-3-1) @ Bengals(5-4)
# 4 – Browns(5-5) @ Ravens(6-3) <—the tentative
# 5 – Buccaneers(6-3) @ Colts(5-5)
# 5 – Chargers(5-4) @ Broncos(5-5)
Tentative – Browns(5-5) @ Ravens(6-3) – The Rams @ Packers is my choice, but the looks good to stay in my opinion and like this week's Browns game, it looks like it could be ugly in my opinion. Some rather decent games on Thanksgiving weekend and that's usually not the case.
# 1 – Ravens(6-3) @ Steelers(5-3-1)
# 2 – Chargers(5-4) @ Bengals(5-4)
# 3 – Broncos(5-5) @ Chiefs(6-4)
Tentative – 49ers(4-5) @ Seahawks(3-6) – 3 better alternatives at the moment, but like Walt said, with the 7th seed in the NFC being so tight, this might stay put. Hopefully not.
# 1 – Bills(6-3) @ Buccaneers(6-3)
# 2 – Ravens(6-3) @ Browns(5-5)
# 3 – Raiders(5-4) @ Chiefs(6-4)
Tentative – Bears(3-6) @ Packers(8-2) – starting to lose its luster with the Bears being the reason and Green Bay also being 8-2. Currently a matchup of teams 4 1/2 games apart in the standings.
Tentative – Saints(5-4) @ Buccaneers(6-3) – this looks like a lock to stay put
Also of note for this week’s games: 2 of a pre-selected 5 games will be played on Sat. 12/18/21 on NFL Network exclusively
Panthers(5-5) @ Bills(6-3) – now my # 2 choice to move to Saturday
Raiders(5-4) @ Browns(5-5) – now my # 3 choice to move to Saturday
Patriots(6-4) @ Colts(5-5) – now my # 1 choice to move to Saturday
Jets(2-7) @ Dolphins(3-7) – 5 cities in the whole USA will see this game on Sunday 12/19/21
Redskins(3-6) @ Eagles(4-6) – hmmm…….potentially
The decision has to be made by the conclusion of the Week 11 games at the latest and down to 1 week away for that decision.
Tentative – Redskins(3-6) @ Cowboys(7-2) – unless this game is a total mismatch and a much better alternative game is found, this stays put. And it's starting to look like a total mismatch. Jerry Jones could be unhappy to lose a SNF game at Jerry World…..hmmmm…..Cowboys losing this week helped this game, but…
Tentative – Vikings(4-5) @ Packers(8-2) – time will tell, but the up and down Vikings keep this game going back and forth on the keep it/ditch it meter
Week 18 (sounds so weird to say that)
2 games will be moved from their preliminary Sunday slot to Sat. 01/08/22 and they’ll both be aired on ESPN/ABC. This is an interesting move to me. These 2 games and the SNF game will both be announced with the rest of the Week 18 schedule, at the conclusion of the Week 17 schedule (at the latest).
Tentative – none of course
Current Games and Records of each team
Jets(2-7) @ Bills(6-3)
Patriots(6-4) @ Dolphins(3-7)
Steelers(5-3-1) @ Ravens(6-3) – looking very good for a Nationally televised game
Bengals(5-4) @ Browns(5-5) – currently looking good for a Nationally televised game, uh maybe…..hmmm…..Bengals fading? and Browns fading?
Titans(8-2) @ Texans(1-8)
Colts(5-5) @ Jaguars(2-7)
Chiefs(6-4) @ Broncos(5-5) – I still believe the Broncos will keep this from being a Nationally televised game
Chargers(5-4) @ Raiders(5-4) – currently looking pretty good for a Nationally televised game
Redskins(3-6) @ Giants(3-6)
Cowboys(7-2) @ Eagles(4-6)
Packers(8-2) @ Lions(0-8-1)
Bears(3-6) @ Vikings(4-5)
Saints(5-4) @ Falcons(4-5)
Panthers(5-5) @ Buccaneers(6-3) – gaining on a chance for a Nationally televised game
Seahawks(3-6) @ Cardinals(8-2)
49ers(4-5) @ Rams(7-3)
I currently have 3 games looking decently good for the 3 Nationally televised games in Week 18. We’ll see how that progresses.
Any thoughts anyone?
Go Pack Go this week in Minnesota. 🙂
Hi, Jeff. Just to let you know, I hope the Seahawks vs. 49ers on week 13 game gets flexed out of SNF this season. Here’s another scenario I can tell you. In my opinion, the Detroit Lions vs. Seahawks game on week 17 should be flexed out of 3:25 pm and move it to a noon game due to both the lions and the Seahawks not having a good year this season and the Cowboys vs. Arizona Cardinals game can be flexed to a 3:25 pm game and have that game America’s game of the week on Fox.
I agree Cardinals-Cowboys if NOT protected by FOX in Week 17 likely gets flexed into SNF even if the Vikings are still in contention for the last Wild Card, ESPECIALLY if Football Team-Cowboys in Week 16 IS flexed out (and if Steelers-Chiefs was flexed into Week 16, CBS would likely have Redskins-Cowboys at 4:25 as CBS rarely gets to air that rivalry and that particular rivalry has special meaning to CBS from a historical standpoint). That said, much of that will be played out over the next few weeks. If the Vikings are on a winning streak and are 8-6 or 9-5 and in contention for the 6 or 7 seed when that decision has to be made for Week 17. however, Vikings-Packers likely stays, otherwise, whichever of Cardinals-Cowboys OR Rams-Ravens is NOT protected by FOX would be flexed into SNF.
Why would the NFL flex out of Sunday Night just to have it at 4:25. I know they did it with NE-BAL in 2013 but I could see where you coming from to have Wsh-Dal on CBS if the NFL wants PIT-KC aim Sunday Night
I could definitely see the changes made that you are talking about. 🙂
Lions Seahawks is in Seattle so it can’t be moved, also It was never going to go to anyone other than Detroit and Seattle
I’m guessing you were not around (or too young to remember) when CBS had the NFC package of the NFL that they did basically from 1960 (when the NFL first did network TV deals and the NFC was actually the entire NFL) until 1993, when FOX swooped in and severely (by 1993 standards) overpaid to get the NFL for FOX, which basically launched FOX Sports that is now the behemoth it is. That move also changed everything for FOX as with FOX getting the NFC package, it lead to MANY CBS affiliates jumping ship for FOX, including most notably in Detroit with the replacement CBS stations being on mainly UHF channels that did not reach everywhere with in some cases the CBS affiliate not being replaced at all. In turn, that more than the infamous Hugh Grant interview led to Jay Leno dominating late night for NBC over David Letterman as Dave lost a ton of CBS affiliates to FOX where the replacements were inferior (not to mention CBS also had a very weak prime time lineup at the time). Even when CBS got the NFL back with the AFC package they have had since 1998, they never have completely recovered the ratings juggernaut they had with the NFC package when it was on CBS.
WAS-DAL was a HUGE rivalry at the time and at times the biggest in the NFL. That rivalry meant a TON to CBS in ways you probably can’t comprehend and that is why in Week 16 CBS would be willing to give up Steelers-Chiefs or Broncos-Raiders to get Football Team-Cowboys and put it at 4:25 solely because of how much THAT particular rivalry means to CBS.
All very true Walt.
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49ers won to get to 5-5, but the Seahawks didn’t keep up there end and fell to 3-7. I think the NFL pulls the trigger, and flex in Chargers-Bengals for week 13 SNF, especially after both teams won on Sunday. Ravens-Steelers is the CBS DH game, so no flex there. The only other SNF flex option is Broncos-Chiefs, but it just feels like a blowout waiting to happen. Had the Bears found a way to beat Baltimore, the Cardinals-Bears game might have had a chance to be flexed, but the NFL and NBC wont risk putting a potentially 3-8 team that might not even have Justin Fields on Sunday Night, no matter how big of a market Chicago is.