Note: This post does not take into account the result of the Thursday night game. Apologies, but the Tuesday night game pushed everything back and then I had to try and make sense of the news that blindsided me (but apparently not some of my commenters) the next day.
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 in recent years and Week 15 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 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 2018 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 22):
- Selected game: Kansas City @ Las Vegas.
Week 12 (November 29):
- Selected game: Chicago @ Green Bay.
Week 13 (December 6):
- Selected game: Denver @ Kansas City.
Week 14 (December 13):
- Selected game: Pittsburgh @ Buffalo.
Week 15 (December 20):
- Selected game: Cleveland @ NY Giants. Well then! If you wanted proof that 2020 somehow sucked us into the Twilight Zone, a Cowboys game being flexed out would do the trick. I don’t know if this is a sign of a philosophical shift at the league offices compared to the early part of the decade regarding the value of the Cowboys or something specific to the present circumstances, though I don’t know anything about COVID cases on the Niners or Cowboys that would lead them to pull what they pulled with the Raiders earlier in the season, unless you count Dez Bryant’s positive test. What makes this especially odd is that I didn’t think the league would make what I figured to be, at best, a lateral move flexing out one NFC East team for another that’s not the Cowboys; the Cowboys may not look all that great at the moment but they’re still only two games out of the division lead, with the Niners only one game out of the wild card (admittedly in a crowded part of the standings). On top of that I have to assume Fox protected Seahawks-No Names as if you had to flex out the Cowboys for an NFC East team that’s looking halfway respectable at the moment, the Seahawks bring more name value as their opponent than the Browns do (recall that appearance limits don’t apply Week 17 so there shouldn’t have been anything preventing the Seahawks or Patriots from being flexed in). Maybe there’s a balance-of-crossflexes problem, where the league would have to give a game from Fox’s package to CBS in order for Jets-Rams to be on Fox (especially with an existing crossflex to CBS having a decent chance to be undone next week – see below), which would have been more necessary if Browns-Giants remained on CBS (though putting it on Fox allows New York and Los Angeles to get Chiefs-Saints) but which can be easily addressed by swapping it for an all-NFC game?
There are some things past iffy Cowboys tentatives had going for them that this one doesn’t. Notably, every previous Cowboys tentative in the main flex period has had at least one team sitting at or above .500. The most perplexing precedents from that perspective are in 2017 and 2012: three years ago, the league kept another game where the Cowboys were two games out of the playoffs while their opponents were only one game out but in a crowded Wild Card race, despite a potentially division-deciding matchup pinned to the late spot of the singleheader, but in that case not only were both teams 6-6 but the Raiders were in a three-way tie for the division lead; and five years before that, a 5-5 Cowboys team playing a 3-7 Eagles team kept its spot when the Cowboys were again a game out in a crowded Wild Card race, but the Cowboys were also only a game out of the division lead. It may well be that lopsidedness isn’t an issue when the Cowboys are involved so long as the game has plausible playoff implications for at least one team; the Niners may be only a game out of the playoffs but look worse than their record at the moment. Notably, that 2017 Raiders game is the only iffy Cowboys tentative not to be a divisional matchup; the NFC East arguably accounts for four of the eight biggest draws in football regardless of personnel or performance in any particular season, and I’m having a hard time figuring out what team fills out the other four after the Steelers, Packers, and Bears, and it may well be the Niners or Raiders, but the Niners probably aren’t in the same league as the others.
I don’t know to what degree either of those factors came into play, or if either or both were decisive or had to be combined with the afternoon scheduling considerations in the previous paragraph, but until proven otherwise I think my assumption for how this should affect how I assess Cowboys tentatives going forward is the likelihood that both teams could have been eliminated from the playoffs by the time the game kicked off. Between that and last year’s “six-day hold” Week 16, as well as the fact that I’ve increasingly been relying on my own Playoff Picture graphic to remind me of the standings when putting together this post once I start making them, I’m considering moving the Playoff Picture graphic to near the top of the post next year, as opposed to just the Week 17 section. Do my commenters have thoughts on that (and if so where in the top section it should go), as well as on the new look for the Playoff Picture this year? (For readability on mobile, I’m going to see if I can make the AFC and NFC separate images while still having them centered and side-by-side on desktop next year.)
Week 16 (December 27):
- Tentative game: Tennessee @ Green Bay
- Prospects: 8-4 v. 9-3. Both teams lead their respective divisions and are in a rough fight for seeding.
- Likely protections: Colts-Steelers, Rams-Seahawks, or nothing (CBS) and Eagles-Cowboys (FOX).
- Other possible games: CBS’ unprotected games (as this is the most likely week for them to leave unprotected) are probably the best alternatives along with Giants-Ravens.
- Analysis: Giants-Ravens has name value and NFC East implications but both teams are worse than both teams in the tentative; throw them out. Rams-Seahawks at 8-4 (now 9-4) v. 8-4 could effectively decide the division while Colts-Steelers, at 8-4 v. 11-1, is a skosh lopsided but has plenty of potential. I don’t think Rams-Seahawks beats the tentative game bias at 9-4 v. 9-4 against a Titans-Packers game at 8-5 v. 9-4. (Rams-Seahawks is currently pinned to the late slot of the singleheader, but with the Eagles and Cowboys being the two NFC East teams that aren’t looking respectable of late, to the point the Cowboys just got flexed out for the first time ever, I could see it crossflexed back to Fox to anchor the doubleheader or at least create a regional split.) Colts-Steelers at 9-4 v. 11-2 could be more interesting, as both teams would lead their respective divisions but the Steelers would have likely lost the #1 seed and the Colts just might have a shot at passing them for seeding, but the Packers probably bring more name value and even the Titans might be more familiar to the casual fan, and Colts-Steelers should have decent distribution as the anchor game of the singleheader.
- Final prediction: Tennessee Titans @ Green Bay Packers (no change).
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Falcons-Bucs, Bidens-Eagles, Cowboys-Giants, Vikings-Lions, Steelers-Browns, Packers-Bears, Saints-Panthers, Dolphins-Bills, Seahawks-Niners, Cardinals-Rams.