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.
Week 13 (December 1):
- Selected game: New England @ Houston.
Week 14 (December 8):
- Selected game: Seattle @ LA Rams.
Week 15 (December 15):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: 8-3 v. 4-7 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, although the Chargers are at least within striking distance of the anemic AFC wild-card race.
- Likely protections: Texans-Titans, Jaguars-Raiders, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Cowboys if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: In terms of pure record, Bills-Steelers and Texans-Titans probably have the edge over Seahawks-Panthers as the Panthers have tumbled below .500; Seahawks-Panthers is now only a game better in each column than the tentative. Jaguars-Raiders and 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) deserve mention as well if we’re going to consider 5-6 teams (all analyses in this post don’t include the Thanksgiving games).
- Analysis: On the one hand, Seahawks-Panthers probably still has more overall name value than the games involving 6-5 teams, and the league might feel they owe it to the Seahawks for flexing out an otherwise-serviceable tentative to the morning their time this past week, even though the Seahawks won that game. On the other hand, Cam Newton isn’t playing in that game, the Steelers (despite lacking their own star quarterback) are one of the few teams that can pop a rating no matter who’s on the team, how they’re doing, or who they’re playing, and there has to come a point where even one of the most marginal teams on name value, like the Bills, warrants a Sunday Night showcase, and with the Bills playing (and winning) on Thanksgiving and getting a Saturday game next week, not to mention a playoff game in their future, now might be an ideal time (though the Bills would likely prefer to have as much rest as possible before that Saturday game). Those two games are probably the only realistic alternatives – even if it’s not their feature game, Fox would likely scream bloody murder at losing both halves of the Bears-Packers rivalry this year with the first half becoming a special Kickoff Game not involving the defending champions and the second half being flexed in outside Week 17 – but it probably requires the inferior teams to be at least two games clear of the Chargers, who play the lowly Broncos this week.
Week 16 (December 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: 7-4 v. 5-6. Looks a little more respectable (and the Bears’ record doesn’t include the Thanksgiving game), but with the Seahawks and Vikings running away with the NFC’s wild cards, the Bears aren’t exactly in the thick of the playoff mix.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Browns if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: Saints-Titans at least involves a team over .500, but the Saints could lock up the division as soon as tonight (though they’d still be in the thick of the race for seeding among the NFC division winners) and the Titans’ name value is virtually nonexistent. Ravens-Browns and Panthers-Colts are dark horses.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Steelers-Ravens, Titans-Texans, Colts-Jaguars, Niners-Seahawks.
13 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 12”
Hello all and Happy Thanksgiving!
Here are my current thoughts on Weeks 15 to 17:
Week 15 by order of ranking:
#1 – Hou(7-4) @ Tenn(6-5) <—all the AFC South keeps doing is eating their division leader and no one pulls away. Ditto!
#2 – LAR(6-5) @ Dal(6-6) <—could be huge for both teams, but Rams seem done to me, so this might only be huge for the Cowboys & with the Cowpokes losing today and Eagles playing in Miami on Sunday; it looks highly likely the NFC East will be tied at 6-6.
#3 – Buff(9-3) @ Pitt(6-5) <—another one of those games that the Bills will have to win to get some respect. Can they do it? This has HUGE AFC Wild Card implications.
Minn(8-3) @ LAC(4-7) <—the tentative that is lopsided, though the Chargers never get blown out. Please don't stick us with this NFL. Please!!!
Week 16 by order of ranking:
#1 – KC(7-4) @ Chi(6-6) <—the tentative that has come off of the respirator to lay claim to being the best choice available.
#2 – NO(10-2) @ Tenn(6-5) <—the only matchup where both teams are .500 and better and thus wins by default for me. Though, I do see this as a game where the Saints could falter and lose on the road.
Week 17 options:
Tenn(6-5) @ Hou(7-4), Pitt(6-5) @ Balt(9-2), & SF(10-1) @ Sea(9-2).
49ers/Seahawks is by FAR the most desirable game for Week 17, so far. The AFC South matchup of Titans/Texans could be a win and in/lose and out. We'll see. Steelers/Ravens might be huge, if the Steelers get back on track.
Due to these 3 games likely affecting the playoff seedings in a big way and needing to be played at the same time as other games, there's a chance we could have a repeat of 2017 and have no Week 17 Sunday Night Football game. I hope not!
Go Pack Go in NY vs the Giants this week!
Be careful… you are going to unnecessarily push our friend Andrew De Caro off the deep end with your week 15 breakdown…..the Bears-Packers game can’t be flexed to Sunday Night that week. The Packers are now maxed out on the 6 prime time appearances.
Thursday Night Games- Bears & Eagles
Monday Night Games- Lions & Vikings
Sunday Night Games- Chiefs & 49ers
You can rest easy Mr. De Caro,
There’s nothing wrong for Packers vs. Bears game at Lambeau Field on week 15 being flexed to 3:25 pm game on Fox. But here’s the thing. For example, if the Packers clinch our division in first place on the playoff seed number 3 and the Vikings clinch the wild in 2nd place as the number 6 playoff seed, they would have to face each other on primetime Sunday night football NBC on the wild card.
Current SNF game: Vikings (8-3) vs. Chargers (4-7)
Predicted SNF game: Bills (9-3) vs. Steelers (6-5)
Other flex possibility: Texans (7-4) vs. Titans (6-5)
If the Steelers win on Sunday vs. the Browns, and Duck Hodges looks like a competent QB, then Bills-Steelers becomes the SNF game. Both teams would be leading the AFC wild card race, Bills are a good team, and with Josh Allen at QB, Bills are intriguing after beating the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Plus, the Steelers are one of the biggest brands and ratings draws in the NFL along with the Cowboys, Patriots, and Packers. I think Bills-Steelers would be a competitive game with AFC playoff implications and could draw a solid rating for SNF
The SNF-flex backup plan in case the Steelers lose on Sunday I think is Texans-Titans. The Titans would need to win on Sunday vs. the Colts to increase their chances of this happening. Texans-Titans week 15 has big AFC South title implications, but I could also see the NFL bypassing flexing this game if they feel like flexing one of the Titans week 16 or 17 games instead. Plus, there’s a slight chance CBS protected this game way back after week 5 when the networks made their protection picks
I think a Seahawks-Panthers flex is on life support after the Panthers recent losing streak has dropped them to 5-6. It would take both the Steelers and Titans losing and Panthers winning for this to have a chance, but even then the Panthers seem out of the NFC wild card race. The game does have star power with Wilson vs. McCaffrey, but again not much at stake here in terms of the NFC playoff picture
Bears-Packers cannot be flexed because the Packers have maxed out their primetime games at 6, and I doubt the NFL wants to flex into games featuring Trubisky and the Bears offense
Rams-Cowboys cannot be flexed because it’s most likely FOX has protected the game
Current SNF game: Chiefs (7-4) vs. Bears (6-6)
Predicted SNF game: Chiefs (7-4) vs. Bears (6-6)
Other flex possibility: Saints (10-2) vs. Titans (6-5)
The combination of Mahomes, the Chicago market, and a lack of available flex-worthy games makes me think that the NFL sticks with Chiefs-Bears on SNF. The NFL could convince themselves to keep Chiefs-Bears on SNF because the Chiefs are fighting for AFC playoff positioning, Mahomes’ star power, Chicago is the #3 TV market, and there’s no other obvious game to flex into
The one SNF flex possibility is Saints-Titans. Saints are an obvious choice as NFC South champs and Brees at QB. If the Titans win both weeks 13 and 14, and haven’t been flexed into their week 15 game, then I could see the case for Saints-Titans on SNF. Titans at that point would likely be leading the AFC South or one of the AFC wild cards, assuming they are 8-5 before the NFL makes its flex decision. However, the Titans aren’t a huge ratings draw for the NFL, so the league may be judicious about which week to flex them, if so desired
The Bills-Patriots and Rams-49ers games cannot be flexed since they are playing Saturday on NFLN
Ravens-Browns and Cowboys-Eagles are most likely protected by CBS and FOX, respectively; no chance of flexing those games
Current SNF game: none
Predicted SNF game: 49ers (10-1) vs. Seahawks (9-2)
Other flex possibilities: Titans (6-5) vs. Texans (7-4), Steelers (6-5) vs. Ravens (9-2)
Unless something drastic happens, looks like 49ers-Seahawks week 17 will decide the NFC West champ, with the winner garnering a first round bye and the loser having to play on the road as a wild card team. Huge NFC playoff implications, two great teams, and a heated rivalry should have NBC and the NFL drooling over the ratings potential of this matchup
If somehow the NFC West is decided before week 17, then Titans-Texans round 2 is a possibility. One reason why the NFL may be reluctant to flex the Titans in weeks 15 or 16 is in case the NFL decides to flex Titans-Texans in week 17 instead. Quite possible the Titans-Texans rematch could decide the AFC South winner
Steelers-Ravens is a flex longshot, would probably take the Ravens to fall back to earth and the Steelers to go on a hot streak for this game to decide the AFC North
As long as Cowboys-Eagles is for the NFC East, unless the Bears work themselves back into playoff contention (very possible given I think this Thursday’s game with the Cowboys has all the looks of a “stinker” with another implosion by the Cowboys), the NFL I think yanks FOX’s protection of Cowboys-Eagles citing the league owing the Eagles for being flexed out in Week 12 due to not doing so potentially creating a ton of unintended consequences noted in the two previous posts (that along with the 49ers-Ravens situation in Week 13 leads to starting with the next TV deals the NFL being able to move games like SEA-PHI in Week 12 and NE-HOU in Week 13 to Monday Night Football if there is a better game for SNF where the SNF game being flexed out otherwise isn’t warranted, giving ESPN extra doubleheaders those weeks) that could have gone well beyond the NFL and sports for that matter (see the comments in those posts for that for those who have not).
I have a feeling Bills Steelers is the SNF game week 15
The comment by Jay is the most likely scenario of how it breaks down the rest of the way. Vikings-Chargers has to move. I think they use the Pittsburgh draw against Buffalo in what should be a meaningful game and use Tennessee later most likely. Even if both BUF and PIT lost in Week 14, they would be right in the middle of the race. They’ll keep KC-CHI (Mahomes vs. big market team) unless NO-TEN becomes too hot to pass up. Don’t think they would take anything but those two, assuming that DAL-PHI was most likely protected by Fox. They should have a Week 17 matchup what will play with either SF-SEA (for division and first round bye possibility) and TEN-HOU (for play-in) leading the way.
No chance Cowboys-Eagles gets flexed to SNF week 16. FOX has that game protected. The NFL doesn’t do “makeup flexes” midseason. And the NFL has NEVER flexed a CBS/FOX protected game from its late doubleheader window. The protection rule is there to protect CBS/FOX’s best games from being taken by NBC. Also, NBC had Eagles-Cowboys earlier this year; the NFL wouldn’t take the rematch away from FOX
Additional thoughts on week 15 schedule and SNF:
With the Chargers losing and Steelers winning today, here’s what I think happens…
Bills (9-3) vs. Steelers (7-5) flexed to SNF at 5:20 pm ET
Texans (7-4) vs. Titans (7-5) leads CBS’s singleheader slate at 1:00 pm ET
Vikings (8-3) vs. Chargers (4-8) cross flexed to CBS at 4:05 pm ET
Rams (7-5) vs. Cowboys (6-6) remains FOX’s late doubleheader game at 4:25 pm ET
Bills-Steelers looks like the best week 15 game based on records. Both teams are the AFC wild card leaders, Steelers draw well nationally in the TV ratings, and the Bills are interesting with Josh Allen. This would be the Bills first SNF game since 2007, a well-deserved reward for a passionate fanbase and ascending team
Vikings-Chargers is an obvious flex-out due to the Chargers record. This game gets crossflexed to CBS at 4:05 pm ET, since the Rams are playing the Cowboys on FOX at 4:25 pm ET. Rams-Cowboys is protected by FOX, so it is not a SNF flex candidate
The other SNF flex possibility, Texans-Titans, remains on CBS at 1:00 pm ET, in what will likely be CBS’s top game of week 15 with Nantz-Romo broadcasting. Despite the game being a critical AFC South matchup, I believe the NFL bypasses Texans-Titans because 1) Bills-Steelers is a better game on paper, 2) AFC South teams traditionally draw poor TV ratings, while the Steelers are one of the most popular teams in the league, and 3) the NFL may want to save the Titans in case they need to flex them for SNF in week 16 vs the Saints, or week 17 vs the Texans, as the NFL would probably prefer not having the Titans on SNF two out of three weeks
They just confirmed Bills Steelers as the SNF game on NBC
Hello all! Just confirmed on Sunday Night Football, that week 15 will indeed Buffalo at Pittsburgh!!! This works for me.
It’s official. Bills-Steelers have been flexed in for week 15. After the Steelers and Bills both won and the Chargers lost, I think we saw that coming.
For Week 16, with the Bears winning, I think the Chiefs-Bears game will stay (tentative game bias), especially if they win against Dallas on Thursday.
For Week 17, I still expect SF-SEA to be the chosen game, but Tennessee winning creates intrigue for TEN-HOU
Thank You Corey For Saying That I Can Rest Easy Now Because The Packers At Lions Game Can’t be Flexed. Because ESPN Already Aired the First meeting On Monday Night Football. And i Found Out That The Minnesota Vikings LA Chargers game Got flexed out Meaning That A few weeks ago the Philadelphia Eagles got Flexed out for the first time ever And now The Minnesota Vikings got flexed out for the first time ever. And today the Bills Steelers game got flexed to Sunday Night. So That Means The Steelers are now maxed out for primetime games Because Steelers Ravens second meeting Now can not Be Flexed. Thanks Again Corey Now I Can Rest very Easy Like Sunday Morning.
The NFL doing a “makeup flex” for the Eagles by yanking FOX’s protection of Cowboys-Eagles is looking less likely that would happen anyway, especially if the Bears beat the Cowboys on Thursday since the Bears likely would still be in the NFC Wild Card race when that decision has to be made, even more so if the Seahawks beat the Vikings tonight regardless of what the Vikings do next week and also more so if the Eagles lose Sunday since then there is no guarantee of that game with the Cowboys meaning anything anyway.
That said, the NFL could still yank the protection of Cowboys-Eagles and guarantee FOX the late Sunday playoff slot on all three playoff weekends this year to make up for pulling a protection, especially given the circumstances of WHY SEA-PHI was flexed out that again is why in the future there likely will be provisions to move such a game to Monday night even if it means simply giving ESPN an extra doubleheader (with the network affected by such a move getting preferential treatment where possible for playoff time slots and even if necessary the following season creating extra prime time slots for games as makeups to the networks affected by such, with for example in 2020 the NFL giving NBC’s opener on Wednesday with FOX getting a Thursday night prime time game in Week 1 to make up for losing its protection of Cowboys-Eagles this season AND the Week 2 Thursday nighter also being on FOX (instead of NFLN only, with those games being during the MLB Playoffs instead of Weeks 2-3) with teams who played on Wednesday and Thursday in Week 1 playing that Week 2 Thursday nighter that in turn allows for an extra Thursday night game in Week 16 next season).
That in turn said, I do agree about NO-TEN being a candidate for SNF in Week 16 because that could have playoff implications on both conferences.
And as for Week 15, flexing in Bills-Steelers was the right call, especially once the Panthers lost again on Sunday.