Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 8

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):

  • Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ LA Chargers
  • Prospects: 4-3 v. 4-3. If the Steelers have righted the ship after a 1-3 start this game should keep its spot.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Bears (CBS) and Cowboys-Chiefs or Packers-Vikings (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Bengals-Raiders is the only other game featuring two teams above (not at) .500, with Cowboys-Chiefs featuring a team at that mark and Packers-Vikings a dark horse.
  • Analysis: Generally, even if the Steelers and Chargers both lose (and both are favored against 3-5 teams so either losing would not be a good sign) to fall to .500 you’d expect it to keep its spot against all but the most compelling alternative, and while Bengals-Raiders is trapped in 4:05 singleheader purgatory, it’s lacking in name value compared to the Steelers and a 5-3 team playing a 5-2 team isn’t quite as compelling as it would be if the teams had one fewer loss each. That said, if you’re looking at a 4-4 v. 4-4 tentative on the West Coast and an unprotected alternative is sitting in the late singleheader slot at 6-3 v. 6-2, you at least have to seriously consider pulling the flex, right? (I don’t think either of Fox’s potentially protected games have a realistic shot in any case, though.)

Week 12 (November 28):

  • Tentative game: Cleveland @ Baltimore
  • Prospects: 4-4 v. 5-2. The AFC North is competitive enough that .500 is bad enough for the Browns to once again find themselves in last place, but they still only trail the division-leading Ravens by a single win.
  • Likely protections: Titans-Patriots, Steelers-Bengals, Chargers-Broncos, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Packers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games; Steelers-Bengals is the only potentially unprotected game pitting two teams above .500, with Chargers-Broncos and Titans-Patriots involving teams at that mark. Bucs-Colts is a dark horse, and it’s probably too late for Vikings-Niners to climb into contention.

Week 13 (December 5):

  • Tentative game: San Francisco @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 3-4 v. 3-5, with the Niners only a half-game out of the third wild card, and it sounds like Russell Wilson could return as soon as Week 10 after the bye, but the Seahawks weren’t playing that great even with him and that Week 10 game is against the 7-1 Packers, so this is still very vulnerable.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Steelers (CBS) and Cardinals-Bears, Bucs-Falcons, or nothing (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Chargers-Bengals is the only unprotected game pitting two teams above .500, with Broncos-Chiefs pitting two teams at that mark. Fox’s potentially protected games are dark horses with Bucs-Falcons having a bit of an edge. If this game keeps its spot the relative lack of name value of the front-runner will have a lot to do with it.

Week 14 (December 12):

  • Tentative game: Chicago @ Green Bay
  • Prospects: 3-5 v. 7-1. 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 best unprotected options, and both not only involve teams at .500 but NBC is already slated to air the other halves of those divisional matchups. If this game doesn’t keep its spot by default, look to Niners-Bengals and Falcons-Panthers, in that order, to improve their standing.

Week 15 (December 19):

  • Tentative game: New Orleans @ Tampa Bay
  • Prospects: 5-2 v. 6-2, 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; right now Raiders-Browns and Panthers-Bills are the best choices, leaving Patriots-Colts to be a dark horse, joined by Falcons-Niners and Seahawks-Rams. If Packers-Ravens is protected, Titans-Steelers is probably the best of the Sunday afternoon slate, followed by Bengals-Broncos.

Week 16 (December 26):

  • Tentative game: Washington @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 2-6 v. 6-1. 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, 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: Ravens-Bengals pits two teams above .500 but I was concerned enough about their name value to list three other protection options for CBS as well, plus the option of leaving it unprotected despite this being a doubleheader week for them. Bills-Patriots, Bucs-Panthers, Steelers-Chiefs, and Broncos-Raiders pit teams at .500 against teams above that mark. Rams-Vikings is a dark horse with Bears-Seahawks lurking behind.

Week 17 (January 2):

  • Tentative game: Minnesota @ Green Bay
  • Prospects: 3-4 v. 7-1. The Vikings are actually only a half-game out of the third wild card, but this is still lopsided.
  • 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, as Panthers-Saints, Broncos-Chargers, and Chiefs-Bengals are the next best games and all involve teams at .500. Raiders-Colts and Falcons-Bills are dark horses.

Week 18 (January 9):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 8

  1. Here’s my take on things so far.

    Week 10

    # 1 – Saints(5-2) @ Titans(6-2)
    # 2 – Chiefs(4-4) @ Raiders(5-2) <—the tentative
    # 3 – Browns(4-4) @ Patriots(4-4)
    # 4 – Panthers(4-4) @ Cardinals(7-1)

    Tentative – Chiefs(4-4) @ Raiders(5-2) – this game will stay put, but I wouldn’t currently pick it due to the Chiefs being 3-4, but they’ll probably win this coming week on MNF vs. the Giants and move to 4-4. And yes, the Chiefs struggled to a win to get to 4-4 to solidify this game. Saints @ Titans is intriguing, but sad too because of them both losing key players in Week 8.

    Week 11

    # 1 – Bengals(5-3) @ Raiders(5-2)
    # 2 – Steelers(4-3) @ Chargers(4-3) <—tentative
    # 3 – Cowboys(6-1) @ Chiefs(4-4)

    Tentative – Steelers(4-3) @ Chargers(4-3) – this game is a virtual lock now due to both being 4-3. This game seemed in bad shape a few short weeks ago.

    Week 12

    # 1 – Rams(7-1) @ Packers(7-1)
    # 2 – Steelers(4-4) @ Bengals(5-3)
    # 3 – Browns(4-4) @ Ravens(5-2) <—the tentative
    # 4 – Titans(6-2) @ Patriots(4-4)
    # 5 – Chargers(4-3) @ Broncos(4-4)

    Tentative – Browns(4-4) @ Ravens(5-2) – if the Browns go under .500, the Rams @ Packers could slip in here. Some rather decent games on Thanksgiving weekend and that's usually not the case.

    Week 13

    Tentative – 49ers(3-4) @ Seahawks(3-5) – with both teams winning this past week the chances of this game staying improved

    Week 14

    Tentative – Bears(3-5) @ Packers(7-1) – After their 1st matchup in Chicago, this game will be going nowhere, especially since Aaron Rodgers “owns the Bears,” unless the Bears really croak fast. Nah, it’s going nowhere……then again, it's getting pretty lopsided

    Week 15

    Tentative – Saints(5-2) @ Buccaneers(6-2) – 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(4-4) @ Bills(5-2) – looking good
    Raiders(5-2) @ Browns(4-4) – looking good
    Patriots(4-4) @ Colts(3-5) – If Indy would quit losing the close games, this game would practically a lock to move to Saturday
    Jets(2-5) @ Dolphins(1-7) – 5 cities in the whole USA will see this game on Sunday 12/19/21
    Redskins(2-6) @ Eagles(3-5)

    The decision has to be made by the conclusion of the Week 11 games at the latest.

    Week 16

    Tentative – Redskins(2-6) @ Cowboys(6-1) – 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

    Week 17

    Tentative – Vikings(3-4) @ Packers(7-1) – time will tell

    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(2-5) @ Bills(5-2)
    Patriots(4-4) @ Dolphins(1-7)
    Steelers(4-3) @ Ravens(5-3) – looking pretty good for a Nationally televised game
    Bengals(5-3) @ Browns(4-4) – currently looking good for a Nationally televised game, uh maybe
    Titans(6-2) @ Texans(1-7)
    Colts(3-5) @ Jaguars(1-6)
    Chiefs(4-4) @ Broncos(4-4) – I still believe the Broncos will keep this from being a Nationally televised game, uh huh and now the Chiefs are contributing to that as well
    Chargers(4-3) @ Raiders(5-2) – currently looking really good for a Nationally televised game
    Redskins(2-6) @ Giants(2-6)
    Cowboys(6-1) @ Eagles(3-5)
    Packers(7-1) @ Lions(0-8)
    Bears(3-5) @ Vikings(3-4)
    Saints(5-2) @ Falcons(3-4)
    Panthers(4-4) @ Buccaneers(6-2) – still on the outside looking in
    Seahawks(3-5) @ Cardinals(7-1)
    49ers(3-4) @ Rams(7-1)

    I currently have 3 games looking pretty good for the 3 Nationally televised games in Week 18. We’ll see how that progresses.

    Any thoughts anyone?

    Go Pack Go this week at the Chiefs…….ugh…..no Rodgers

  2. As for this:

    I don’t see changes in Weeks 11 or 12 with the Chargers winning and the AFC North race as tight as it is.

    With the Chargers winning on Sunday and the Bengals likely to be remaining in the thick of things when it’s time to pick for Week 13, I suspect that game likely replaces 49ers-Seahawks, especially with the 49ers losing again as they are now 3-5 and can be no better than 5-5 when that decision has to be made.

    Week 14 I suspect we could see the rematch of Ravens-Browns with both winning today as the AFC North race figures to continue to be air-tight.

    Week 15 Right now no change, but the Saints losing could be a warning sign.

    Week 16: Steelers-Chiefs is most likely to be flexed in because that game is likely to have Wild Card implications at this point and Raiders-Broncos is now also a possibity with AFC West and Wild Card implications in play, especially given the Broncos beat-down of the Cowboys on Sunday.

    Week 17: Still say Cardinals-Cowboys is likely SNF if that is for playoff seeding, especially given FOX already committed to Rams-Ravens at 4:25 (with that game flexed into SNF if FOX protected ARI-DAL

    Too early for Week 18.

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