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. Note: This year NBC’s press release indicated that the main flex period begins in Week 11 even though Christmas falls on Sunday. I’m assuming this is correct and the result of NBC still being able to have six weeks in the main flex period despite this because of the expansion of the season.
- 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, 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, except for two games moved to Saturday to be simulcast on ESPN and ABC.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 11 (November 20):
- Selected game: Kansas City @ LA Chargers.
Week 12 (November 27):
- Tentative game: Green Bay @ Philadelphia
- Prospects: 3-6 v. 8-0, definitely lopsided but still pitting Aaron Rodgers against the league’s last unbeaten team, and the name value of the teams involved may yet save this game despite some decent alternatives.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Jaguars, Bengals-Titans, Chargers-Cardinals, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Chiefs, Saints-49ers, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games; Bengals-Titans is the only Sunday game involving two teams at or above .500, though Falcons-Warnocks pits two 4-5 teams. Rams-Chiefs would be a dark horse with more time.
- Analysis: It pretty much comes down to Bengals-Titans, a battle of two teams just over .500 in the thick of the playoff mix. The teams’ records are concerning, though the Bengals are on bye this week so neither team can actually fall to .500, but the real question is whether or not Bengals-Titans has the name value to overcome the tentative, and Joe Burrow aside I don’t think it does. I definitely don’t think the tentative loses its spot if the Eagles are still unbeaten, but even if the Eagles and Packers lose to their NFC East opponents while the Titans win to climb to 6-3, I still think NBC would rather have Aaron Rodgers against the NFC East than a pair of small-market AFC teams. I wouldn’t be too surprised by a flex if the Eagles finally go down Monday, but I just don’t think there’s enough firepower to pull the trigger.
- Final prediction: Green Bay Packers @ Philadelphia Eagles (no change).
Week 13 (December 4):
- Tentative game: Indianapolis @ Dallas
- Prospects: 3-5-1 v. 6-2. Getting lopsided, and it might not be a good idea to feature a team that fired its coach, but a good Cowboys team is almost certainly not being flexed out.
- Likely protections: Jets-Vikings, Chiefs-Bengals, or nothing (CBS) and Titans-Eagles or Dolphins-49ers (FOX).
- Other possible games: Jets-Vikings and Titans-Eagles each involve two teams over .500 with Chiefs-Bengals probably being disqualified due to the Chiefs being maxed out (though Chiefs-Broncos next week is decently likely to be flexed out); Dolphins-Niners and Genericnames-Giants involve 4-win teams. Broncos-Ravens and Seahawks-Rams are dark horses with Packers-Bears still clinging to being worthy of mention.
Week 14 (December 11):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Denver
- Prospects: 6-2 v. 3-5. The Broncos are not living up to the hype of Russell Wilson’s arrival, and this game could still be concerningly lopsided.
- Likely protections: Jets-Bills or Dolphins-Chargers (CBS) and Bucs-49ers or Eagles-Giants (FOX).
- Other possible games: Eagles-Giants and Jets-Bills would be surefire picks to be flexed in at the moment if they’re left unprotected, and Dolphins-Chargers would be in the running as well if the Chargers weren’t maxed out. Browns-Bengals and Bucs-Niners are dark horses while Jaguars-Titans might be a very distant contender.
Week 15 (December 18):
- Tentative game: New England @ Las Vegas
- Prospects: 4-4 v. 2-5, not exactly what NBC was hoping for but reasonably resilient to a potential flex given the name value of the teams and this being the week with a flexed-in Saturday slate.
- Likely protections: Probably Titans-Chargers (CBS) and Cowboys-Jaguars, Eagles-Bears, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: As usual, assuming the games set aside for a potential move to Saturday can’t be protected; Dolphins-Bills is the clear favorite on the slate right now, followed by Giants-Riveras and the other three games just competing to see which one has the least bad worse team. Unfortunately Titans-Chargers (now doubly out of the running) is the only other game on the Sunday slate pitting two teams above .500, with Bengals-Bucs, Eagles-Bears, and Cowboys-Jaguars as the most viable dark horses, likely leaving NBC stuck.
Week 17 (January 1):
- Tentative game: LA Rams @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: 3-5 v. 5-3. Decidedly mediocre, and might start getting lopsided. If the Rams continue to slide this game may be very much at risk, especially given the alternatives.
- Likely protections: Vikings-Packers (CBS) and Saints-Eagles, Jets-Seahawks, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Jets-Seahawks is starting to look like a real threat to be flexed in (especially since it’s currently pinned to the late slot of the singleheader), while Dolphins-Patriots makes a second game involving two teams over .500. Colts-Giants, Cardinals-Falcons, Broncos-Chiefs, Saints-Eagles, and Browns-Snyders are dark horses.
Week 18 (January 8):
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Games to watch: Bucs-Falcons, Patriots-Bills, Ravens-Bengals, Jets-Dolphins, Giants-Eagles, Cowboys-NotIndians, Cardinals-Niners.