Note: This post (mostly) does not incorporate the result of the Thursday night game. Hey, at least I didn’t skip it entirely like last year.
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 17 (January 1):
- Tentative game: LA Rams @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: Effectively flexed out already with the Chargers now maxed out on primetime appearances without it. The Rams’ surprisingly woeful season has sealed its fate.
- Likely protections: Vikings-Packers (CBS) and Saints-Eagles, Jets-Seahawks, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: See my not-so-Last-Minute-Remarks post. Jets-Seahawks, Dolphins-Patriots, and Panthers-Bucs remain the main contenders, while Steelers-Ravens, Browns-Maroons, and Niners-Raiders continue to climb into contention.
- Analysis: For the second time, the NFL is pulling a “six-day hold” on the Sunday night game in the penultimate week, something that by all reports will become an explicit ability of the league’s once the new TV contracts kick in next year. That time the tentative was announced as keeping its spot while the late afternoon games were still ongoing, and the rest of the results would have favored the alternative to the tentative. This time, it was reported to the 506sports Discord that CBS had sent out an email indicating that the Week 17 schedule might not be finalized until Monday. One reason for the league’s patience might be that Dolphins-Patriots might be the best option available to them, but barring a crossflex losing Dolphins-Patriots would leave CBS with Steelers-Ravens as their best early game, though the situation isn’t quite as dire as when Eagles-Giants was in a similar situation some weeks back, as the Steelers are at least on the periphery on the playoff picture and Fox has both Browns-Maroons and Panthers-Bucs available in the early window.What I said in the Last-Minute Remarks post about the chances of each team being eliminated mostly holds, though it was pointed out on the 506sports Discord that there is a very slight chance of a scenario that would leave the Patriots eliminated from the playoffs before a hypothetical Sunday night tilt with the Dolphins. That leaves the question of how each game might affect the Week 18 schedule.
- Jets-Seahawks: There are a number of scenarios where Jets-Dolphins either is a Sunday night game or would have the winner beat the potential loser of a Sunday night game. If the Jets win and either the Dolphins lose to the Packers or the Patriots lose to the Bengals, a Jets win over the Seahawks could put Jets-Dolphins into Sunday night contention; if the Dolphins and Patriots both lose the Jets result could affect the chances of Patriots-Bills no matter which way it goes; on the other hand, if the Patriots, Dolphins, and Jets all win the Jets-Seahawks game could affect the chances for Chargers-Broncos; same goes if the Dolphins and Chargers lose regardless of the Jets’ result. If the Raiders win, Dolphins lose, and either the Patriots or Chargers lose, then you’re looking at the possibility of Jets-Seahawks affecting Chiefs-Raiders, although that might also hinge on the Monday night result anyway to see what the Chiefs have to play for. Realistically, though, any combination of results could put Jets-Dolphins in play at least for Saturday; you’d almost want the Dolphins to lose and Jets to win just to make it so that the game’s a Saturday candidate regardless of the Week 17 results, except of course that puts it in play for Sunday. As for the Seahawks, a Packers win all but guarantees that some game’s Sunday night chances could hinge on Jets-Seahawks, whether it’s Packers-Lions itself, Giants-Eagles, or Cowboys-NotIndians, while a Lions win over the Panthers opens up the possibility of the Seahawks themselves getting the Sunday night nod.
- Dolphins-Patriots: In addition to all the AFC scenarios that apply to Jets-Seahawks, if the Patriots and Chargers lose while the Browns, Steelers, and Dolphins win that could also make this game affect the chances of Chargers-Broncos.
- Panthers-Bucs: The Bucs need to win and the Falcons lose to wipe out the possibility of Bucs-Falcons being a division title game, with the Bucs’ win also eliminating Panthers-Saints from consideration. Then you can’t have both the Panthers losing and the Saints winning. This is the only game that can have a scenario where it can’t affect the Week 18 Sunday night game, with one caveat (two if you count the Bucs playing on Christmas night):
- It would be nice if the Bengals and Ravens either both won or both lost. That way, if the Ravens win Ravens-Bengals is a guaranteed division title game and the Sunday night game, at least, doesn’t need to wait for anything else; if the Ravens lose the possibility of a division title game hinges on the Monday night game and you might as well put whatever game you want on Sunday night.
- Finally, I expect the NFL would want to announce the Week 17 schedule, or at least get started on determining it, as soon as possible. On that front it’s notable that the Dolphins play on Christmas and the Chargers play on Monday night; if the Jets lose on Thursday, both of those results would factor into whether the Jets could be eliminated by a hypothetical Sunday night tilt with the Seahawks.
- Final prediction: Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (if the Bucs win, Falcons lose, Bengals lose, and either the Panthers win or the Saints lose), New York Jets @ Seattle Seahawks (if the above scenario doesn’t happen, the Jets win, and the Seahawks win OR Washington loses), Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots (if the Jets lose OR (the Patriots and Washington both win AND the Seahawks lose), and the Panthers-Bucs scenario doesn’t happen), Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (if the Jets and Washington both win and the Patriots and Seahawks both lose). Note that if this last scenario comes into play, and the rest of the original Panthers-Bucs scenario still doesn’t happen, I could see a game involving a 7-8 AFC team steal the spot; conversely I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Jets-Seahawks or Dolphins-Patriots (really only the latter, since this is going up after that Thursday night “performance”) are flexed in before the Sunday night game even if the Panthers-Bucs scenario is still alive, especially if the Texans upset the Titans to ensure Titans-Jaguars is for the division.
Week 18 (January 8):
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Games to watch: Every game except Texans-Colts is in play to at least move to Saturday. For Sunday night, Vikings-Bears, Browns-Steelers, and Cardinals-Niners are the only other games not in contention, although the pathway for Chiefs-Raiders is exceptionally narrow, the Thursday night result means Jets-Dolphins can only move to Saturday at best, and there’s a clear favorite on the board and another game that’s a clear backup option if the first choice doesn’t pan out. Percentage chances reflect likelihood of the game in question being a candidate for Sunday night only, not Saturday and not necessarily taking into consideration how likely they are to actually be taken, and as always, are based on ESPN Analytics’ percentage chances for each relevant game, with numbers for Jaguars-Jets taken shortly before kickoff and everything else taken around 10 PM PT.
- Chances of Ravens-Bengals: 74 percent. If this is a division title game, it’s got a high likelihood to move to Sunday night despite both teams being likely to make the playoffs, not only because of the marketability of Jackson v. Burrow, but because with the Bengals playing the previous Monday night, this game probably can’t move to Saturday, so it can only be displaced from Sunday night if there are enough other games that can go in standalone windows for both ESPN and NBC to be taken care of. As such the percentage chances for the other games mostly assume this game isn’t in play, with numbers for games not directly affected by the Ravens and Bengals games working under the assumption this game can’t be a Sunday night candidate for those games to be chosen. As it stands, the Ravens beat the Bengals the first time they played but are a game back now, but if the Ravens lose the next two weeks while the Bengals win their next two the Ravens would hold the edge in division record, so either the teams need to stay as they are right now or the Ravens can make up no more than one game.
- Chances of Titans-Jaguars: 20 percent. Jacksonville beat the Titans the first time, but if the Jaguars manage to take the lead heading into the final week the Titans would have the edge on division record with a win, so all that needs to happen for this to be a division title game is at least two combined Titans losses and Jags wins, hence the surprisingly high chances even with the assumption that Ravens-Bengals can’t be a division title game. (The chances jump up to 77 percent without that assumption.) But this would probably only move to Sunday night, as opposed to Saturday, as a last resort, even with the loser being out of the playoffs as opposed to merely settling for the wild card as in the case of Ravens-Bengals. One additional twist: if both teams lose their next two, the Colts would need to lose at least once, or else they could steal the division if they and the Jaguars both win, likely forcing both AFC South games to be played at the same time on Sunday.
- Chances of Jets-Dolphins: 11 percent. Miami won the first time and if they beat the Patriots they would hold the edge on common games, so either the Jets would need to win their next two while the Dolphins lost to the Packers, or the Patriots would need to beat the Dolphins. But the Patriots swept the Jets, so if they beat the Dolphins they’d need to lose to the Bengals and the Jets would still need to win their next two. On top of that, either way the Chargers would need to win at least once to not open up the possibility of the Jets still getting a playoff spot with a loss. Finally, if the Dolphins were to lose to both the Packers and Patriots, the Raiders would need to lose at least once or else they could knock the Dolphins out of the playoffs on common games even with a Dolphins win. Since this would be a loser-out game, it might be able to sneak in to Sunday night over Ravens-Bengals with enough other games that can move to Saturday… or it would be if this game were still alive. Strange as it sounds now, ESPN Analytics favored the Jets over the Jaguars by enough to put this game’s chances this high, even though the Jets would have needed to win against both the Jaguars and Seahawks for it to be an option, and wouldn’t even have been favored against the latter!
- Chances of Bucs-Falcons: 7 percent. Pretty straightforward situation here. The Bucs won the first time they played, so the Falcons need to win one more game than the Bucs; then to clear the field and ensure the winner of this game wins the division, the Panthers and Saints need to each lose at least once. Alternately, if the Panthers and Bucs both split with the Panthers beating the Bucs, the Saints win their next two, and the Falcons lose at least once, the Bucs would be tied with a Saints team they swept and a game ahead of a Panthers team that swept them, meaning they’d win the division with a win but would fall behind the Panthers-Saints winner with a loss, while the Falcons would be out of the playoffs by virtue of being swept by the Saints and having the worst division record, so the Panthers-Saints result wouldn’t affect what they have to play for. This is one game that could displace Ravens-Bengals if there are enough other games that can move to Saturday, as Tom Brady’s potential swan song, but the Bucs should be favored in each of their next two games, the Saints are the opposite, and the Falcons look to be big underdogs against the Ravens, so this game being for the division is easier said than done, and that’s even more the case for…
- Chances of Panthers-Saints: 4 percent. If the Bucs lose their next two, including the Panthers completing a sweep, while the Saints win their next two, this could become a division title game. Only caveat is that if the Lions beat the Panthers this week, the Falcons would need to lose at least once so they wouldn’t enter the week ahead of the Panthers. Alternately, if the Panthers and Falcons both win their next two while the Bucs beat the Cardinals, or if the Bucs lose their next two while the Panthers and Falcons each split, the Panthers would win the division with a win but would fall behind the Bucs-Falcons winner with a loss; then the Saints would need to perform worse than the Panthers and Falcons, as in the event of a four-way tie entering the final week, the Saints would lose a tiebreaker to the Bucs but win one against the Falcons.
- Chances of Chargers-Broncos: 2 percent. This would likely require the Chargers to lose their next two, unless they split, the Patriots win their next two, the Dolphins precede a loss to New England with a win over the Packers, and the Jets beat the Jaguars but lose to the Seahawks. That would give the Patriots the edge over the Dolphins on division record if they and the Dolphins have the same result, and if the Dolphins, Patriots, and Chargers all lost, either the Patriots would hold the edge over the Chargers on conference record if the Chargers’ loss came against the Colts, or the Patriots would need to have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker. The Patriots might be pretty close to locking up strength of victory as it is, though, and if the Patriots do win their tiebreaker, the Jets would hold the edge over the Chargers either on conference or common games. If the Chargers lose their next two, they could fall behind the Jets-Dolphins winner if the Dolphins also lose two while the Jets reverse their results from the scenario above (though if the Patriots split they’d still need to clinch the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Chargers), or they could fall behind the Browns-Steelers winner if those teams each win their next two. In the latter scenario, either the Dolphins would still need to lose their next two while either the Patriots or Jets won their next two, or the Jaguars would need to beat the Jets no matter what to keep the Jets from holding the edge on conference games, and if the Patriots lost to the Bengals but beat the Dolphins (and either the Dolphins beat the Packers or the Jets lost to the Jaguars), then the Chargers would need to have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Patriots.
- Chances of Cowboys-NotIndians: 1 percent. If the Packers win their next two, the Lions and Washington split, and the Seahawks do no better than split, Washington would be sitting at 8-7-1 and a loss would put them behind, at minimum, the 9-8 Packers-Lions winner, or in the event of a Packers-Lions tie, the Lions’ wins over the Packers and Washington would give them the edge; meanwhile the Cowboys would need to be locked into the 5 seed, eliminated from the division but with the same or better record than the Giants over their next two. Cowboys always = ratings but I can’t see this displacing Ravens-Bengals, even if another game joins Packers-Lions as a Saturday candidate, when the Cowboys wouldn’t have anything to play for.
- Chances of Lions-Packers: 1 percent. The Lions beat the Packers the first time, so the teams need to either be tied or the Packers need to outright take the lead over them – but the Seahawks beat the Lions so if the Lions lose their next two they aren’t guaranteed to have a playoff spot waiting for them with a win, so the Packers need to win their next two while the Lions split and Seattle and Washington each lose their next two. (The Packers can be a game behind the Lions and still finish ahead of them with a win, but besides both teams winning their next two while Washington loses their next two, the Packers would also need to have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker, and in order to do that heading into Week 18 every result that would make a difference would have to go their way, including the Seahawks beating the Jets and the Giants losing their next two. That would put the Lions ahead of both the Giants and Washington, so that would require the Seahawks to beat the Chiefs as well to make the game win-and-in, lose-and-out for them, but the Packers would still have a worse record than the Giants and Seahawks so would need one of them to lose to make the playoffs, which would make this a Saturday game at best.) Washington is slightly favored against the Browns and the Seahawks look like they should be favored against the Jets, but if this is a candidate, and there are enough other games that can move to Saturday, it might be able to displace Ravens-Bengals because of Aaron Rodgers’ star power. As a result, this game sits behind the Washington game in the pecking order by only .04%.
- Chances of Patriots-Bills: <1 percent. As with Ravens-Bengals this game probably can’t move to Saturday as the Bills play the previous Monday night. In this scenario the Bills need to have clinched the first-round bye and the Patriots need to be in a win-and-in, lose-and-out situation. That could mean that the Dolphins lose their next two, including to the Patriots, while the Patriots lose to the Bengals, which would give the Patriots the edge on division record; then either the Jets, who the Patriots swept, would also need to split their next two, or both the Browns and Steelers would need to win their next two as the Patriots beat them both. Alternately, if the Chargers lose their next two while the Patriots perform the same split and clinch the strength-of-victory tiebreaker over them, and the Browns and Steelers hold up their end of the bargain (and two Steelers wins might lock up strength-of-victory for the Patriots by itself), what the Dolphins and Jets do becomes less relevant, and in fact the Dolphins might need to beat the Packers to ensure the Patriots can’t end up with a playoff spot even with a loss. The Chargers are significant favorites in their next two games against underwhelming opposition, the Dolphins are slight favorites over the Packers, and ESPN considers the Patriots-Dolphins game to be evenly matched, which adds up to this game only having a .8% chance.
- Chances of Rams-Seahawks: <1 percent. Now we get to the really slim chances. If the Seahawks, Lions, and Packers all have the same record the next two weeks while Washington is at least a game worse, the Seahawks would come into the week holding the 7 seed thanks to their win over the Lions, but could fall behind the Packers if they lose and the Packers win. Whether or not they would is where things get complicated. If the Packers beat the Vikings they’d hold the edge in conference record over the Seahawks, but if the Lions beat the Bears, the Packers would need to beat the Dolphins to secure a tie in common games and then clinch the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Lions, and that would run into the same situation mentioned with Packers-Lions above where the Seahawks would enter the week with the 6 seed and could still make the playoffs with a loss. If the Packers lose to the Vikings but beat the Dolphins, the Lions would have to lose to the Bears to keep from having the edge in division record, and the Packers would need to clinch the strength of victory tiebreaker over both the Lions and Seahawks, and the Lions would have enough of a head start in this scenario with two pairs of teams they beat playing each other over the next two weeks that that’s not actually possible. So this game’s only shot is for the Lions to beat the Panthers and the Dolphins beat the Packers this week, and then for the two NFC North teams to reverse those results next week.
- Chances of Chiefs-Raiders: <1 percent. There’s a chance the Chiefs would hold the first-round bye with a win but would fall behind the AFC North winner with a loss, but that would probably send this game to Saturday. On the other hand, if the Raiders win their next two, the Dolphins lose their next two, and the Jets split, the Raiders, Jets, and Dolphins would all be sitting at 8-8 with the Raiders holding the edge over the other two in common games, and would have beaten the Patriots directly if the Pats lose to the Bengals. (If the Pats beat the Bengals, the Chargers would need to lose their next two to open up their playoff spot, in which case the Raiders would hold the edge over them in division record.) Then the Chiefs would just need to be locked into their seed, though if we need to avoid an AFC North division title game, that would likely mean the Chiefs need to win their next two while the Bills lose their next two, clinching the first-round bye for Mahomes and company. (Patrick Mahomes is enough of a star that this game might be able to displace Ravens-Bengals with enough Saturday candidates, but that would likely require both teams to have something to play for.)
- Chances of Giants-Eagles: <1 percent. This would require the Giants to lose their next two (including to the Colts) while Washington wins their next two (including against the Niners), thus falling to the 7 seed; then the Giants would be in the same situation as Washington would be with their game above if the Packers, Lions, and Seahawks have the same results as in that situation. Oh, and the Eagles would need to have already locked up the first-round bye, and I’m assuming this game can’t displace Ravens-Bengals. All that adds up to very slightly worse chances than Chiefs-Raiders.