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):
- Selected game: Pittsburgh @ Baltimore. What the hell? Okay, I get why you wouldn’t pick Panthers-Bucs despite the NFC South games being eliminated from contention for Week 18 standalone windows; it was pointed out that Raymond James Stadium hosts the ReliaQuest Bowl the following day at noon ET (just ignore the craziness in the rest of that thread), and if the Las Vegas Bowl had to be moved to the late afternoon window to allow time to turn around the Allegiant Stadium field for a Raiders home game moved to the late afternoon window, going from a primetime game to a noon game, a 12-hour turnaround before factoring in things like warmups, would have definitely been too close for comfort. (I get the sense that bowl games typically wait for the NFL to release its schedule to set their dates and times – the Las Vegas Bowl didn’t announce its date and original time until two weeks after the NFL schedule came out – but with bowl season coinciding with the thick of flex season, and more explicit six-day flex periods coming with the new contract, maybe it should be the NFL that works around the bowls’ preferred dates and times instead of the other way around.) I get that the Steelers now have the same record as the Patriots and are improving while the Pats and to a lesser extent the Dolphins are in freefall, and I could have understood if Niners-Raiders had been chosen if the Raiders had beaten the Steelers, but there was absolutely no reason not to pick Dolphins-Patriots, which is less lopsided and, with that game and the former tentative now being played in the afternoon, there’s a very good chance the Steelers are eliminated from the playoffs before primetime, which isn’t a factor with Dolphins-Patriots. If it’s good enough for SNF it’s good enough for the lead game in the early doubleheader window, when the Steelers wouldn’t have already been eliminated, so with both games coming from CBS you could have just as easily made the same switch with Dolphins-Patriots in Steelers-Ravens’ place. It doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of determining the Week 18 game(s); Jets-Dolphins needs a decent number of things to happen to be in contention for a move to Sunday night, while Bengals-Ravens is disproportionately likely to be the SNF game, giving the Ravens SNF games in two straight weeks, because of the Bengals playing on Monday. (I did see a suggestion that this was partially motivated by cutting down the rest discrepancy between the teams as much as possible, potentially allowing the game to move to Saturday after all, but that seems unlikely. What may be more plausible is the league giving the Dolphins as much rest as they need ahead of a potential Saturday tilt with the Jets, which is a bit more likely than Sunday night.) There isn’t as much risk of the Steelers resting players (especially without any key players having serious injuries) as there would be if they had locked up a playoff seed or were completely out of it, and this is a rivalry game, but I have to imagine this was partly driven by the disappointing ratings (by NFL standards) for the recent flexed-in games, and more specifically the disappointing ratings for Dolphins-Chargers suggesting Tua isn’t a big enough draw yet to carry a window on his own.
This is actually making me reconsider what happened the last time the league pulled a “six-day hold”; I had thought the league had announced Chiefs-Bears was being kept during the late afternoon window, during a game that would ultimately eliminate the Bears from the playoffs and before a Sunday Night result that would have ensured Saints-Titans had maximum implications for both teams, to avoid putting off the decision too late or to ensure whatever game ended up on Sunday night wouldn’t affect the Sunday night game the following week, but now I think they were just looking for an excuse to keep the matchup with the larger fanbases. Most bewildering flex decision I’ve seen in a while, since at least Chiefs-Broncos in 2016 (mostly puzzling because the SNF and lead late DH games basically switched places, which seemed pointless to me) and more likely Cardinals-Eagles in 2015, which I called possibly the worst flex decision I’d ever seen; this is not making me feel better about continuing this feature next year if I don’t get a lot more clarity as to how flexing is going to work under the new TV contracts, because I’m ultimately grasping at straws trying to figure out what to take away from this for future years. (That’s especially the case because according to ProFootballTalk, Fox protected Panthers-Bucs, not Saints-Eagles or nothing at all. That makes a little more sense than you’d think – the Panthers were 1-4 when protections needed to be submitted while the Eagles were unbeaten, but the Saints weren’t much better at 2-3 and accounted for the Panthers’ only win, making it not that much of a stretch especially when you consider past confirmed protections – but it’s serendipitous enough that it raises the question of whether this protection really did need to be submitted Week 5 or if we still don’t quite understand how protections work.)
Week 18 (January 8):
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications, with ABC and ESPN showing two such games on Saturday).
- Possible games: Ravens-Bengals, Jets-Dolphins, Lions-Packers, Titans-Jaguars; [to Saturday only: Cowboys-NotIndians, Panthers-Saints (!), Giants-Eagles, Rams-Seahawks, Browns-Steelers, Chiefs-Raiders, Vikings-Bears, Cardinals-49ers]. Patriots-Bills could be a win-and-in, lose-and-out game for the Patriots if they and the Jets both win, as the Pats would hold the tiebreaker over the Jets-Dolphins winner, but it probably can’t move to Saturday because the Bills play on Monday night, and it can probably only move to Sunday night if the Bills’ seed is locked in, which would require them to beat the Bengals in said Monday night game, which in turn would ensure Ravens-Bengals was also in the running, and I think it’d get the nod over Pats-Bills as a game with meaning for both teams. It’s only because the Bengals are in the same “probably can’t move to Saturday” situation that Ravens-Bengals is in contention for Sunday night; Titans-Jaguars is guaranteed to decide the AFC South, and the league would probably prefer to pick a win-and-in, lose-and-out game over one where the loser would only fall to the wild card. Technically that could be the case for Titans-Jaguars as well, but it would require the Titans and Jaguars to win and the Dolphins and Jets to lose, which would be sufficient to at least create a potential “tie so we both make the playoffs” situation like last year – and there’s a chance that would lead the league to pick a game I haven’t identified as a potential Sunday night candidate. As with last year, conditions in brackets apply only to a Sunday night move and don’t need to apply for the game in question to move to Saturday.
- Ravens-Bengals will be picked if: The Ravens win OR the Bengals lose, AND no more than one Saturday situation (not counting Titans-Jaguars) happens. See above. The Ravens beat the Bengals the first time, so if the teams remain a game apart the Ravens can still win the division with a win.
- Jets-Dolphins will be picked if: The Jets win [AND the Dolphins beat the Patriots, AND if the Ravens-Bengals situation happens, at least one other Saturday situation happens]. I may have been too hasty last week in dismissing this game’s chances, because I misread my own cheat sheet; it was actually the Jets who won the first time these teams met, so if the teams are a game apart and the Patriots aren’t a factor, the Jets would win the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win. The Jets beat the Steelers and the Titans-Jaguars loser wouldn’t be a factor here, so the situation where this game would be win-and-in, lose-and-out seems pretty simple.
- Lions-Packers will be picked if: The Lions win AND the Packers win AND the Seahawks lose [AND Washington loses, AND if the Ravens-Bengals situation happens, at least one other Saturday situation happens]. Bit more complicated here, but this would put the Lions and Packers at 8-8 with Washington at 7-8-1 and Seattle, who beat the Lions and so would win a tiebreaker against them, a game back. Alternately, if Washington wins but the Seahawks still lose the winner of this game would be set up to go to the playoffs if Washington loses to the Cowboys; see below. In the event both this game and Jets-Dolphins are candidates for SNF (both are dependent on the Jets beating the Seahawks), I would expect this game to have the edge because Packers and Aaron Rodgers, but I’m listing it after the other game because it needs more results to fall its way.
- Titans-Jaguars will be picked if: None of the above SNF situations happen, OR at least two other Saturday situations happen AND Ravens-Bengals is the only SNF situation listed above that happens; otherwise it will be moved to Saturday. As mentioned, this game is already guaranteed to be for the division. There’s a chance that even if there are enough Saturday candidates that this game isn’t needed there, NBC might still want Ravens-Bengals ahead of it as two relatively name teams with star quarterbacks as opposed to two of the weakest brand names in the NFL, even if this is a loser-out game while the loser of Ravens-Bengals would still make the playoffs; that’s especially the case if the “tie and we both make the playoffs” situation happens, which could create a situation where the Jaguars would hold a wild card with a win. However, if Ravens-Bengals is hinging on the Monday night game and Saturday is covered, I’d definitely expect this game to be the Sunday night game.
- Cowboys-NotIndians may be moved to Saturday if: Washington wins AND the Lions win AND the Packers win AND the Seahawks lose AND (the Cowboys lose OR the Eagles win). This would be a win-and-in, lose-and-out game for Washington with the Lions-Packers winner rooting for a Washington loss, which ordinarily would be a candidate for Sunday night except that that’s likely to require the Cowboys to have nothing to play for and the league would probably prefer to avoid a game like that. The Seahawks result is because this game would have to be played after Lions-Packers, and the Seahawks beat the Lions but would lose a conference record tiebreaker to the Packers. Note that if the Seahawks win, but also the Titans and Jaguars win, the Dolphins lose, and another game can join Titans-Jaguars on Saturday, there is a chance for this game to move to SNF if the league wants to avoid the “tie and we both make the playoffs” potential with Titans-Jaguars; the Cowboys play the Titans so they’d already be eliminated from the division in this scenario.
- Alternately, Cowboys-NotIndians may be moved to Saturday if: Washington loses AND the Seahawks win AND the Packers lose. This would be a scenario where Washington would effectively move to the back of the line in the wild card race, potentially jumping ahead of the Lions (if they win) and Seahawks with a win and losses by the teams ahead of them. If the Lions and Packers both win one of them would be guaranteed to finish ahead of Washington, but if the Lions win and Packers lose the Packers would lose the tiebreaker even with a win so would be eliminated from the playoffs regardless of what Washington does, while if both teams lose the game between them can be played earlier in the day before Cowboys-NotIndians. On that note…
- In addition to the scenario above, Lions-Packers may be moved to Saturday if: The Packers lose AND the Lions and Washington have the same result (or either the Lions win or Washington loses while the other ties) AND if those results are wins, the Seahawks also win. The situation if the Lions and Washington both lose, while the Seahawks win, was covered above. If the Lions, Seahawks, and Washington all win, the Lions would be last in the pecking order among teams still alive for the playoffs by virtue of their loss to the Seahawks. If all four teams lose, now the Seahawks would hold the common-games tiebreaker over the Packers as well, so Lions-Packers can be the first game in the wild card race… except that would potentially open the door for the Bucs or Saints to steal the wild card. The Bucs would actually be in the best position of any non-Washington team with the best conference record backed up by the win over the Seahawks, but while the Saints also beat the Seahawks and would hold a tiebreaker over the Lions in common games, the tiebreaker with the Packers would be decided by strength of victory where the Packers would currently lead. On that note…
- Panthers-Saints may be moved to Saturday if: (The Panthers beat the Bucs AND the Saints lose AND at least one of the Lions and Packers lose) OR (the Saints win AND the Lions and Packers lose AND Lions-Packers is the other Saturday game AND the Packers have not clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Saints) AND Washington loses. The Panthers could clinch the division with a win, but if Washington and either the Lions or Packers lose, the Bucs can still get a wild card if they play at the same time as all the teams ahead of them. This might be something of a last resort; it occurred to me before the Bucs-Cardinals game that if this game ended up being for the division, NBC might actually prefer Titans-Jaguars if it came down to that, as the market sizes are comparable and the Jaguars have the biggest star of the four teams in Trevor Lawrence (and the Titans might have the second-biggest star in Derrick Henry).
- Giants-Eagles may be moved to Saturday if: The Giants lose AND at least one of the Seahawks, Lions, and Packers win AND (the Eagles win OR the Cowboys, Vikings, and 49ers lose). The Giants have not yet locked up a playoff spot and would still be in jeopardy of losing it in this scenario. An Eagles win would lock up the division and first-round bye, so if they’re still in jeopardy of losing it they need to play at the same time as one of the teams that can catch them.
- Rams-Seahawks may be moved to Saturday if: The Seahawks lose AND Washington loses AND the Lions and Packers lose AND Lions-Packers is the other Saturday game. If the Seahawks lose to the Jets they need at least one of the Lions or Packers to lose, but then if they win against the Rams whichever NFC North team lost would be eliminated, so you’d need to have the Lions and Packers play first. If Seattle, Washington, and Detroit all win, a Seattle win would eliminate the Lions, which would still force Lions-Packers to be played first, but if the Packers win this week a Packers win would eliminate the Seahawks, while if the Packers lose this week losses by the Seahawks and Lions would clinch a playoff spot for Washington.
- Browns-Steelers may be moved to Saturday if: The Steelers win AND the Patriots beat the Dolphins AND the Jets lose. The Steelers were swept by all four AFC East teams, so they can’t have two teams from that division that play each other tied with them at 8-8. (I suppose the Steelers could win and the Jets and Dolphins tie, but that’s not exactly the sort of thing you can count on, or at least it’s not the sort of thing that makes for a compelling game on its own.)
- Chiefs-Raiders may be moved to Saturday if: The Chiefs lose. If the Chiefs and Bills win they’d be the only team that can catch the Bills for the first-round bye, so if they lose the Bills have nothing to play for; whereas if the Bengals win the Chiefs would have the outright lead for the first-round bye, so if they lose the Bills would only have the 2 seed to play for. The Chiefs lost to both teams so if there’s a three-way tie entering the final week a Chiefs win would still allow either team to catch them for the bye. Conversely, if the Bills win and Chiefs lose the Bills would lock up the 1 seed while the Chiefs would need to defend a one-game lead for the 2 seed from the Bengals, but even if the Chiefs win the Bengals would still need to win the division from the Ravens. The end result is that if the Chiefs lose this game would have playoff implications even if the Raiders are eliminated (and fortuitously for the league, before the Monday night game is played, allowing the Saturday games to be set Sunday night), but for the record, the Raiders’ playoff hopes hinge on any 8-8 playoff teams losing, so the Jets can’t be one of them since the Dolphins have to be one of them, and unlike with the Steelers a tie between them won’t help the Raiders; thus for this game to have meaning for them, the Raiders would need to win, the Patriots need to beat the Dolphins, and the Jets need to lose. The Steelers beat the Raiders, but that’s not necessarily eliminating; if the three AFC East teams, the Steelers, and the Raiders are all at 8-9, the Steelers would be eliminated with an inferior conference record and then the Raiders’ win over the Patriots would be the determining factor.
- Vikings-Bears may be moved to Saturday if: The Vikings win AND the Cowboys win AND the Eagles lose. In this scenario, the Vikings would still be alive for the first-round bye, but if they lose the Eagles and Cowboys could still play at the same time for the division. Note that only one of Vikings-Bears and Cowboys-NotIndians can go in a standalone window.
- Cardinals-49ers may be moved to Saturday if: The Niners win AND the Vikings win AND the Eagles lose. Did you know that the Niners are still alive for the first-round bye? If they win out and the Eagles lose out, their conference record would trump that of the Eagles and, if necessary, Vikings and Cowboys. If the Vikings were to lose this week a Niners win next week would lock them into the 3 seed, so instead the Vikings need to win and then they can play after the Niners do (either later on Saturday or simultaneously with the Eagles), knowing if the Niners win, a loss would knock them all the way down to the 3 seed.