Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 13

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):

  • Selected game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams.

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. Still, this game might be in better shape than that one was, with the Chiefs failing to shake the Chargers for the division and the Seahawks currently holding 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: Texans-Eagles is the only unprotected game involving only teams at or above .500, and that assumes the Eagles’ London game doesn’t leave them maxed out on primetime appearances. Of the glut of four-win teams I mentioned last week, only the Bucs won to make Bucs-Cowboys the second choice.
  • Analysis: Texans-Eagles has the same gap in records as Chiefs-Seahawks but a game worse. Simply having both teams win while the Chiefs and Seahawks lose isn’t going to overcome the tentative game bias, especially since that’ll just give the Chiefs and Seahawks that much more to play for. Having Chiefs-Seahawks get more lopsided while Texans-Eagles gets less so might work better, especially since a Chiefs win or Chargers loss would give the Chiefs a chance to clinch the division on the Thursday night following the decision and especially especially if it’s coupled by losses by other AFC division leaders to put the Chiefs closer to locking up a first-round bye, but that would still only give the Eagles and Seahawks identical records in a tie for the second wild card (technically it would be the Cowboys the Seahawks were tied with). Bucs-Cowboys, meanwhile, is a battle between a pair of mediocre teams, but if a Bucs win and Seahawks loss puts the Bucs within a game of a wild card spot it might have a shot; it might actually be an open question whether Bucs-Cowboys benefits more from the Eagles beating the Cowboys, reeling the Cowboys back into a division dogfight and creating a one-game gap in records, or from the Cowboys beating the Eagles, making the Eagles less of a roadblock to the Bucs stealing a wild card. In all likelihood Chiefs-Seahawks keeps its spot, especially with the Bucs playing the mighty Saints and the Eagles still potentially maxed out on primetime appearances, but I’m not willing to commit to it right now.

Week 17 (December 30):

  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Eagles-Trumps, Colts-Titans, Bears-Vikings, Chargers-Broncos. That’s… not a whole lot, and while the two NFC games have decent chances of happening the AFC games need a lot more to break in their favor, especially Chargers-Broncos which practically needs the Chargers to lose out and the Broncos to win out and get help from other AFC wild card contenders. More on this next week.

8 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 13

  1. I think it’s safe to call Chiefs-Seahawks for Week 16, barring a season-ending injury to Mahomes or Wilson this week.

    I do think some variation of Walt’s Week 17 idea (every team in the same conference playing at the same time) would be a good idea to bake into the next TV deal. Fans going to the game wouldn’t have to wait until six days beforehand to know what the game time is going to be for sure, NBC would be guaranteed a matchup and they could add in a slot for a ABC/ESPN simulcast akin to the first wild-card game to give ESPN a little bit more bang for their buck on their monstrous MNF deal.

  2. Nathaniel:

    The way I do it in my “all teams in a conference play simultaneously” format, ABC AND ESPN get different games in each slot, with the ESPN game also airing on LivWell or LAFF, the DT-2/3 channels of most ABC stations. Likewise, Movies AND BUZZR (DT-2/4 channels for FOX) get simulcasts of games on NFL Network and FS1 and Decades (DT-2 channel for CBS stations) gets a simulcast of a game on CBSSN. The over-the-air stations get the top four games (NBC 1, FOX 2-3, ABC 4) while the bottom 4 are on cable and DT-2/3/4 channels.

    As for Week 16, Chiefs-Seahawks is a lead pipe cinch to remain as the AFC West could also be in play depending on what happens Sunday and next Thursday. Week 17 may require the above (that becomes a new Week 18 starting next year) or NBC getting two games at 8:20, one on NBC and the other on NBCSN and COZI-TV (DT-2 Channel for NBC stations).

  3. I’m gonna go through every game for week 17……
    Bears vs Vikings- the most likely scenario at the moment, could possibly be for the division but the bears need to lose 2 more and the Vikings need to win out. This would also be a good game for ratings.

    Colts vs Titans- could very well be the battle for the last wild card, the Ravens would need to fade away though and I don’t see that happening. Ratings would be meh for this game since it’s the Titans.

    Chargers vs Broncos- Looking like a good game, could be win and your in for Broncos and also win and your in for the division game for the Chargers, I could see NBC picking this game if the Broncos continue to be hot. Plus this game could be meaningful for both teams.

    Eagles vs Redskins- If the Cowboys fade away ( which isn’t happening) this game could be for the division, but the Eagles and Redskins are likely to falter.

    Browns vs Ravens- browns need to win out basically to even be considered for playoffs, not a good chance for this one.

    Bengals vs Steelers- Bengals need to win out, and that’s not happening, so no.

    Panthers vs Saints- if the Saints lose out and the Panthers win out this could be for the division, but none of that is likely at all so forget about this one, since Carolina will fade into irrelevance in the next week’s.

    Cowboys vs Giants- always a good ratings game, maybe if NBC is desperate for a game, you could go with this to get a good ratings.

    Jets vs Patriots- gonna be a blowout and won’t mean anything

    Dolphins vs Bills- this game could mean something for the dolphins, but it won’t mean anything for the Bills.

    Jaguars vs Texans- Houston should have everything locked up here, and Jacksonville will have nothing to play for. It’s Bills vs Dolphins but more entertaining.

    Raiders vs Chiefs- likely gonna be a meaningless game, maybe NBC would wanna show the last Oakland Raiders game, but I don’t see that happening.

    Cardinals vs Seahawks- Actually maybe if NBC wants to do regional action on SNF, and put the other meaningful NFC game in. But I don’t see that happening so this game has 4:25 pm written all over it.

    49ers vs Rams- Gonna be a blowout, NBC won’t even look at this one.

    Falcons vs Buccaneers- both teams are gonna be dead, and won’t even have the draft lottery to play for, so no.

    Lions vs Packers- most depressing game on this week….No just no

  4. I think NBC might go with regional action for SNF, and that’s where game like Cardinals vs Seahawks, Chargers vs Broncos, Browns vs Ravens, Panthers vs Saints come in. Either way the slate is pretty slim this week

  5. Repost from earlier this week, from the last blog:

    After the games of Week 13, here are my current rankings for the SNF games for Week 16 and Week 17.

    #1–KC(10-2) @ Sea(7-5) <–the tentative game. KC will "probably" win in Week 14 at home vs. Baltimore, but one never knows, as the Ravens have been hot. And I do think the Seahawks will win at home vs the Vikes, but that should be a pretty damned good MNF game.

    #2–Pitt(7-4-1) @ NO(10-2) likely protected…Steelers will win in Oakland, though Raiders have upset them a few times in the past, but this isn't THAT Raiders team. Saints "should" win in Tampa, but Bucs did beat them in Week 1(48-40) in New Orleans & Tampa has won 2 in a row.

    #3–Hou(9-3) @ Phil(6-6)…either of these teams could win or lose in Week 14. Texans at Colts and Eagles @ Cowboys. If Eagles lose, they won't be in my final rankings next week.

    As for Week 17…I have 5 current games as possible, but there are problems with all 5 and the real fave of my current rankings could be "no SNF game" for the 2nd straight season. Here we go anyway.

    #1–Chi(8-4) @ Minn(6-5-1)…the problem here is that if Bears lose to Rams and Vikes beat Seahawks, we run into Dallas and Wild Card matchup games needing to have this game play at same time as other games.

    #2–Phil(6-6) @ Wash(6-6)…I don't even seeing this game mattering for the Skins actually, especially with Mark Sanchez now in charge of the team. Plus, the potential needing to play at the same time as the Cowboys problem, for the Eagles.

    #3–Ind(6-6) @ Tenn(6-6)…only way this turns into a win and your in & lose and your out game, is if Ravens die off, as does Dolphins and Broncos. This game will need to play at same time as all those other teams do, most likely.

    #4–LAC(9-3) @ Den(6-6)…same problem as above for Broncos, if they are still in it. Chargers will likely have the 5 seed locked going into this game, but heck they could pass KC and need to play at same time as NE and Houston.

    #5–Car(6-6) @ NO(10-2)…Panthers might climb back into the Wild Card picture with a win at Browns this week, but the way they are playing, I think the Browns might win. I wouldn't put any money on that though. LOL. And the Saints might need to play at the same time as the Rams.

    What a mess!!!….to avoid no SNF for the 2nd straight season, the NFL could give us 1 of 2 games that should have no bearing on anything in Week 17. Those games are Atl(4-8) @ TB(5-7) or Det(4-8) @ GB(4-7-1).

    Any other thoughts guys? Let me know.


  6. Jeff:

    I think the solution there is instead of stiffing NBC for the second straight year would be to instead of CBS and FOX having the “double doubleheader” in Week 17 make it where ALL of the NFL’s broadcast partners get a doubleheader (with DirecTV compensated in some way for losing the last week) with on a permanent basis (becoming a new Week 18 in 2019 and for early 2020 and ’21 either pushing the Super Bowl back a week or only having one week between the conference title games and Super Bowl) the final week going to the “all games in a conference at the same time” format, meaning all games in one conference would be played at night the last week (and also from now on, when Dec. 31 is a Sunday the final week of games is on Saturday 12/30). Everything else in this would be the same as previously noted.

  7. After today’s flurry of games, I think the most realistic Sunday night game for week 17 is Colts-Titans for a wild card spot. Obviously not the most appealing considering they’re both small market teams but it may end up being the one true “elimination game.” Bears-Vikings might be chosen if the Vikings are in a win or go home situation and the Bears need to win for a better seed, but that’s less guaranteed. With the Panthers and Broncos both losing today (to worse teams, mind you), they’ll likely need to win out to have either of their games in contention.

  8. The rs enter their bye week with a 2-8 record. The Seahawks are second place in the NFC West with a 4-5 record. The only attraction to the game was the return of rs cornerback Richard Sherman to Seattle, where he played his first seven NFL seasons. The rs previously were moved out of the flexible Sunday night slot for their Week 7 game against the Los Angeles Rams.

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