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 16; and week 17. 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, as well as late-season Saturday games, are not affected by Sunday night flexible scheduling (discounting the “flexible scheduling” applied to Saturday of Week 16 this year – 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 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 receives 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 17, 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. In theory, 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 NBC has never shown them. 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.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 11 (November 18):
- Selected game: Minnesota @ Chicago.
Week 12 (November 25):
- Selected game: Green Bay @ Minnesota.
Week 13 (December 2):
- Selected game: LA Chargers @ Pittsburgh.
Week 14 (December 9):
- Selected game: LA Rams @ Chicago.
Week 15 (December 16):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 5-6 v. 10-1. The Eagles got off the schneid but this game is still worryingly lopsided (and now will mark Rams games in consecutive weeks).
- Likely protections (CBS protections confirmed): Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and Packers-Bears (FOX).
- Other possible games: Cowboys-Colts, a battle of 6-5 teams, is now the only game pitting teams at or above .500, with Dolphins-Vikings slipping to 5-6 v. 6-4-1.
- Analysis: I said last week that Cowboys-Colts could get the edge even when it stood a half-game worse than Dolphins-Vikings, given the respective market sizes and name value, the story the Colts are becoming, Andrew Luck’s star power, and the Cowboys’ general ability to pop a rating. The question now is whether that would overcome the tentative game bias. It’s worth noting that the Eagles don’t play until Monday night and they’re hosting Washington with a chance to at least establish themselves in the thick of the wild card race, and potentially tie for the wild card or even the division lead. A part of me wants to pay lip service to one of my commenters’ theories about the networks desperately wanting LA home games when practical for the sake of their entertainment divisions, but then another part of me thinks I must be crazy for giving his theories the time of day, and in any case said commenter is also predicting flexing in Cowboys-Colts. Regardless, though, if the Cowboys lose Thursday night and the Eagles win on Monday, putting the Eagles in a three-way tie for the division lead, this game keeping its spot might become a very real possibility (especially if the Colts’ winning streak ends at the hands of the struggling Jaguars). (The fact the aforementioned commenter is also predicting a “reverse doubleheader” with Patriots-Steelers at 1 PM ET and almost all the other games in the late afternoon, with Eagles-Rams taking the lead, while arguably another example of his cockamamie theories, should tell you all you need to know about how much it would be worth it to flex this game out.)
Week 16 (December 23):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Seattle
- Prospects: Heading into the protections this game had the same pair of records as Eagles-Rams, but the Chiefs come from a much smaller market than the Rams while the Seahawks have considerably worse name value than the Eagles and are staring up at the Rams in the division. But this game might have a better chance of keeping its spot; the Chiefs are now only a game ahead of the Chargers for the division and the Patriots and Texans for home field or even a first round bye, while the Seahawks haven’t had the struggles the Eagles have and are tied for the second wild card and a half-game back of the first wild card.
- Likely protections: Steelers-Saints (CBS) and probably nothing, but if something, Bucs-Cowboys or Vikings-Lions (FOX). (This assumes Fox couldn’t protect any of the games singled out for a potential move to Saturday before the season.)
- Other possible games: No games involve only teams at or above .500, which is a problem when the tentative does, potential lopsidedness aside. Texans-Eagles at least stands at 8-3 v. 5-6, but that depends on the Eagles not being maxed out on primetime appearances, either because their London game doesn’t count or they get flexed out the previous week, and if the Eagles are good enough to be flexed in this week that’s all the more reason to entertain the notion not to flex them out the previous week. Below that is a glut of games involving four-win teams: Bengals-Browns, both potential Fox protections, Bills-Patriots, and Falcons-Panthers.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Browns-Ravens, Eagles-Trumps, Colts-Titans, Bears-Vikings, Panthers-Saints, Bengals-Steelers.
12 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 12”
Chiefs-Seahawks looks safe for Week 16, particularly given that the Seahawks have made it through the teeth of their schedule.
Regarding Week 15 – if this were five or six years ago, I would for sure say Eagles-Rams would stay as well because the league was loath to flex in another game unless the tentative was a disaster. However, the league has been more prone to flexing out of a questionable matchup in recent years if there’s a better game available and a Cowboys team in the midst of a division title push is typically ratings gold. If the Eagles win Monday night, I still think Eagles-Rams stays but Cowboys-Colts can’t be ruled out.
What do we think are the chances the league doesn’t flex a game to Sunday Night again in Week 17? Running through the playoff scenarios right now, it seems quite possible that there won’t be a game that has the self-contained playoff stakes the league wants to put as the final, stand-alone game of the season. Would they just punt on the last Sunday Night of the season again or did they only do that last year because the other option was Jags-Titans on New Years Eve (i.e. ratings disaster)?
As of now, my view on Week 15:
Especially now knowing there is a real possibility of no game in Week 17 for the second year in a row and especially given the likelihood Eagles-Rams is a blowout, even if the Eagles get to 6-6 I still see Eagles-Rams being flexed out for Cowboys-Colts as long as the Colts win on Sunday against the Jags as they should. Cowboys will be in the thick of the NFC East no matter what happens this week and next (this was written before their Thursday nighter with the Saints) and even at 6-7 going into that game, they would be no worse than one game out in the NFC East if the Eagles beat the Skins on Monday. And yes, that is even if it created the logistical headaches of making Week 15 a “reverse doubleheader” with the main game at 1:00 and the regional games at 4:05/4:25 (again, NOT unprecedented, CBS when it had the NFC actually did that a few times in the 1980’s, most notably the next-to-last week in 1987 in a week where the then-St. Louis football Cardinals were playing what turned out to be their final home game against the Giants before moving to Phoenix).
Week 16: Unless the Seahawks falter BOTH this week against the 49ers AND next week against the Vikings (both at home), their game with the Chiefs looks safe, however, I’m sure people at NBC are hoping the Chargers win the next three weeks (Sun. night vs. the Steelers, next Sunday against the Bengals at home and the final Thursday nighter of the year against the Chiefs) while the Texans keep winning to keep home field throughout the AFC Playoffs (not to mention the AFC West) in play. Game is also attractive in itself because it’s former division rivals (people forget the Seahawks WERE in the AFC West from 1977-2001) and it’s Patrick Mahomes vs. Russell Wilson.
Week 17: No change here other than the likelihood as of now it’s Eagles-Redskins for the NFC East, Colts-Titans for a wild card or NOTHING, though I could also see where the NFL instead of stiffing NBC two years in a row if they have a situation where two games have bearing on the same playoff spot and are unaffected by earlier games, we see a split Sunday night finale with one game airing on NBC and the other on NBCSN/Cozi TV (Cozi TV is the DT-2 channel for many NBC stations). This is also why I would be seriously looking as previously noted at going to where on the final Sunday, ALL games in one conference are at 2:00 or 3:00 PM ET (this year, with the AFC in the early slot and that could actually be at 2:00 PM ET since there happen to be no AFC games in the Pacific Time Zone the last week) and ALL games in the other are at 6:30 or 7:00 PM ET (in this case the NFC, depending on whether the AFC games are at 2:00 or 3:00 PM ET), with the games divided between ALL of the NFL’s broadcast partners as previously noted and likely as a new Week 18 with the season starting one week earlier (as also previously noted elsewhere here).
Reverse doubleheader? Those North Florida politicians are at it again!
w 15: The NFL definitely wants the Cowboys vs Colts matchup!
w 16 : KC vs Seattle
w 17: Hard to pick one as of now, but there will definitely be a week 17 matchup.
I’ll go along with the others predicting Philly Cheesesteaks vs the Washington Monuments
in week 17.
and Morgan, the real Karl doesn’t criticize you but supports you.
Big thumbs up to your website.
New here, so pardon if this is a silly question… but would the nfl be more likely to flex the current week 15 snf game out since the rams got the week 14 snf game?
I’m not-so-secretly hoping for the colts-cowboys game on Sunday night.
Last Thursday Night’s Thanksgiving Game Between The Falcons And The Saints With Mike Tirico Tony Dungy And Rodney Harrison Calling The Game Was Like Player’s Only You Can Call that NBC’s Version Of Player’s Only Like they do On TNT And NBA TV.
Except on the NBA’s version, you also have former players doing play-by-play and sideline reporting.
That is something FOX or CBS could do on a limited basis.
Now that Cowboys beat Saints I expect Colts-Cowboys to be flexed to Sunday night. Kind of bummed as a Rams fan with tickets to the Rams-Eagles game, but I will take a Saints loss if it gives the Rams home field through the NFC Championship game 🙂
I think that happens if the Colts win on Sunday OR both the Colts and Ravens lose Sunday and are still in a tie for the second AFC Wild Card.
Also, one new factor in play is that even if the Cowboys win the NFC East, Eagles-Redskins could still be for the second Wild Card in the NFC in Week 17. Lots of football before that decision has to be made.
Hello all. Took a little trip to near St. Louis for the Thanksgiving weekend, so now I am back to comment.
As for Week 14, in my final rankings, I would have went with Rams @ Bears followed by Indy @ Hou, & Balt @ KC.
As for Week 15, my rankings go as such. #1–NE(8-3) @ Pitt(7-3-1). #2–Dal(now 7-5) @ Ind(6-5). That’s it for me, as no other matchup is with teams at or over a .500 record
The tentative of Phil(5-6) @ LAR(10-1) could be back on my radar with an Eagles win on Monday, as could Mia(5-6) @ Minn(6-4-1) with a Dolphins win on Sunday. I know Pats/Steelers will NOT be flexed in and will stay as the main late CBS game. I’d love to see Cowboys/Colts moved to SNF for competitive reasons. Due to the Eagles not playing until Monday does increase that game’s chances, but in all and all, I see the tentative game staying.
As for Week 16, I see it this way. My #1 is the tentative KC(9-2) @ Sea(6-5) & my #2 is Pitt(7-3-1) @ NO(now 10-2). With Kareem Hunt gone and Seattle getting a likely win this week, I see the tentative getting stronger as staying in its place. We’ll know for sure after tomorrow.
As for Week 17, I only have 2 games currently that I have as potential. They are Carolina(6-5) @ New Orleans(now 10-2) & Chicago(8-3) @ Minnesota(6-4-1). Nothing else seems to be important for SNF yet and could we be in for our 2nd straight season with no Week 17 SNF, as others have mentioned. Yes we could. Bears/Vikings will probably be my #1 after this coming week. This week is potentially going to clear up a lot of things when it comes to the playoff picture, unless there a lot of upsets. Cowboys upsetting Saints was an interesting start to Week 13.
Here’s to a fun Week 13 and, as always, Go Pack Go at home vs the Cardinals.
You know Pitt-NO will stay on CBS (they protected it), unless the NFL does a “protection override” to give the game to NBC because there is no guarantee of a Week 17 SNF game.
That said, as long as the Seahawks take care of business this and next week, that will stay SNF, especially since on the Chiefs end that game may have major AFC west implications PLUS this is what used to be a division rivalry (1977-2001).
Cowboys-Colts I think will be flexed in regardless of what the Eagles do tomorrow as the Rams game looks like a repeat of Eagles-Saints.
Oh, and speaking of the Cowboys, on Twitter I was seeing major accusations (including from some radio personalities) that said the Saints-Cowboys game was fixed.
After Sunday, I now think if the Eagles win tonight, their game with the Rams stays. Not only would the NFC East be still in play, but both wild cards could be in play as well.