Yes, this is going up barely twelve hours before the start of the Sunday slate. Shrug emoji.
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 and last – 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 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 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. 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 last year was the first time it showed such a game. 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 17):
- Selected game: Chicago @ LA Rams.
Week 12 (November 24):
- Selected game: Green Bay @ San Francisco. The NFL actually carried out the ideal scenario for the entire week’s slate outside observers predicted, with Saints-Panthers being crossflexed to CBS to shore up their anemic slate. Between no announcement coming on Monday and the Seahawks winning that night, I was actually beginning to favor Seahawks-Eagles keeping its spot, and while that might have just been because of Veterans Day, the announcement ended up coming pretty late in the day on Tuesday to the point some of the people on the 506sports forums seemed to start going stir-crazy with theories and speculation, so I’m deathly curious what sort of negotiations may have taken place to cause the announcement to come so late – appeasing the Seahawks for moving a game that wouldn’t normally warrant being flexed out to the early afternoon? Compensating Fox for losing two marquee games? Fox being asked to choose whether they wanted Seahawks-Eagles or Saints-Panthers anchoring their early slate? Fox having to come to terms with the possibility of losing both Saints-Panthers matchups (see Week 17 below)? Simply sorting out the Week 16 Saturday situation so they could announce both sets of moves at the same time? At the very least, I’d love to have an alternative narrative to a certain commenter of mine who’s convinced the league was going to institute a “reverse DH” with Cowboys-Patriots at 1 and most of the rest of the slate moving to the late afternoon time slot, and needed Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones, CBS and its affiliates, the Bills (playing the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and preferring as much rest as possible), local authorities, and more to come in and put the kibosh on it, as though all those factors weren’t reason enough for the league not to have considered it in the first place – which wasn’t even the most insane proposal in last week’s comments. (Why can’t my commenters be as reasonable and sane as the ones on the 506? Granted, when the “reverse DH” idea was brought up there they weren’t immediately dismissive, which tells you how stir-crazy they were getting…)
Week 13 (December 1):
- Tentative game: New England @ Houston
- Prospects: 8-1 v. 6-3, potentially a skosh lopsided and lacking the unbeaten factor, but both teams lead their respective divisions and it’s hard to say no to Tom Brady.
- Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs (CBS) and Niners-Ravens, Packers-Giants, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games; even with no teams on a bye (which has not always been the case on Thanksgivings past) Niners-Ravens and Raiders-Chiefs are the only games on the Sunday slate involving two teams above .500. Other than Niners-Ravens, Titans-Colts might be the best game available to NBC.
- Analysis: Niners-Ravens could be 9-1 v. 8-2, pitting two of the hottest young quarterbacks in the league, with Patriots-Texans 8-2 v. 6-4, but I don’t know if that overcomes the tentative game bias – I suspect the league is reticent to flex in the same team two weeks in a row (especially given what may have happened behind the scenes to pull it off the first time) and the Pats are the most TV-attractive team in either game. Even if Fox left it unprotected, what seems more likely is for the game to be crossflexed to CBS to anchor what’s currently an anemic doubleheader headlined by Browns-Steelers with Chargers-Broncos as a backup, though a) we just saw how the Browns could be more competitive with the Steelers than you might think, and b) Raiders-Chiefs, which might have to go to whichever network doesn’t have Niners-Ravens (unless you want to give the Bay Area a “double singleheader” or open the possibility of starting Niners-Ravens on the Bay Area’s CW station if Raiders-Chiefs goes long), is currently the best game on CBS’ slate, so they might be more inclined to move that game to the late afternoon rather than pull a more complex crossflex. But Niners-Ravens doesn’t strike me as a game that demands a larger audience the way Packers-Niners was, even leaving aside that it’s not facing the prospect of being boxed out of greater distribution by a blockbuster game between two name teams, so I don’t think they flex out a Patriots game of this caliber for it even in the best of circumstances.
- Final prediction: New England Patriots @ Houston Texans (no change).
Week 14 (December 8):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 8-2 v. 5-4. The Seahawks could be defending a wild-card berth and contending for the division lead, but the Rams’ continued mediocrity could start making it dangerously lopsided. A potential complication: the Chargers are currently slated to play in the 4:05 ET slot on Fox, so either LA team would need to serve as a CBS undercard to Chiefs-Patriots if this is flexed out (Chargers-Jaguars could theoretically be moved to the early afternoon but that might be too complicated and still require a move to CBS or giving LA a “double singleheader”).
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Patriots (CBS) and Niners-Saints if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Ravens-Bills looks like the only real contender for a flex if Niners-Saints was protected; Lions-Vikings had an off chance of being the Fox protection, but that might be looking increasingly iffy now. Titans-Raiders is a dark horse.
Week 15 (December 15):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: 7-3 v. 4-6 continues to raise concerns about this game being concerningly lopsided. This game is back to having the worst team in any tentative in the flex period.
- Likely protections: Texans-Titans, Jaguars-Raiders, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Cowboys if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Right now Seahawks-Panthers is the only game likely to overcome the tentative game bias if Rams-Cowboys was protected, though Bills-Steelers looked like a potential contender before the Thursday night game. CBS’ potentially protected games are dark horses, as is Bears-Packers, which probably would have been protected if one of the teams in Fox’s current late-afternoon feature game wasn’t the Cowboys.
Week 16 (December 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: The Bears might be back to having a better record than the Chargers by half a game, but it’s the circumstances surrounding the week that would make it less vulnerable.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Browns if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: Both Bills-Patriots and Rams-Niners, the two highly attractive games that had been singled out for a potential move to NFLN on Saturday, made the move. That leaves Panthers-Colts as the only unprotected game involving two teams above .500, with Saints-Titans involving a team at that mark. Raiders-Chargers could be an intriguing dark horse, being another game that had been singled out for a move to Saturday, but if Vikings-Chargers gets flexed out the only thing it’d have going for it is being less lopsided.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Steelers-Ravens, Saints-Panthers, Titans-Texans, Colts-Jaguars, Chargers-Chiefs, Niners-Seahawks.