Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 15

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 17 (January 3):

  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Bidens-Eagles, Cowboys-Giants, Steelers-Browns, Cardinals-Rams. The Lions being eliminated from the playoffs constricts the league’s options even further than they already were, but not as much as you might think, as laid out last week; the Bills clinching the AFC East constricted the Sunday night options just as much if not more (though in a way that might come as a relief to the league office with the Bills playing on Monday night).
  • Bidens-Eagles will be picked if: Washington and the Giants lose. I had one person try to claim that no way, no how, would an NFC East game be picked, and then eventually acknowledge that there was one scenario where a game’s implications didn’t depend on the other game: if the above results held and the Eagles beat the Cowboys, this would become a division title game. But if the Cowboys beat the Eagles, they’d be sitting tied on top of the division at 6-9 with a team that swept them, while the Giants would be lurking a game back at 5-10 having swept Washington; the Eagles would be out at 4-10-1. Thus, a Washington win would cinch the division, while if the Eagles and Giants both won, the Giants would win the three-way head-to-head tiebreaker, so Washington would win the division with a win while the Cowboys-Giants winner would win it with an Eagles win. This isn’t a situation that has ever produced a Sunday night game though, and while this isn’t reflected in the scenario I’ve laid out, the NFL would take a game that matters for both teams ahead of this if the Cowboys were to beat the Eagles… probably.
  • Steelers-Browns will be picked if: The Steelers lose AND the Browns win AND (Washington wins OR the Giants win OR the Cowboys beat the Eagles). Because I started writing last week’s post before the Monday night game ended, I failed to appreciate that the loss to the Ravens was the Browns’ third division loss, meaning the Steelers already have the division tiebreaker locked up even with the loss to the Bengals. Therefore, the Browns need to be actually tied with the Steelers to still be alive for the division. Note that it is possible for this game to go to NBC even if the NFC East title game also happens, both as a sop to Fox and in recognition of this game representing a juicier story, but the NFC West games (especially Cardinals-Rams) will have importance no matter what else happens, while a Steelers loss would clinch the #1 seed for the Chiefs (who are playing at home anyway) and the Raiders need to beat the Dolphins and have the Ravens lose to stay alive for the playoffs, so Steelers-Browns should get better distribution on CBS than Bidens-Eagles would on Fox (indeed don’t be too surprised if Bidens-Eagles gets the nod even if the Eagles lose).
  • Cardinals-Rams will be picked if: The Rams lose AND (the Cardinals win OR the Bears lose) AND none of the above scenarios happen (or if the Bidens-Eagles one does the Cowboys beat the Eagles). Bad news for the Rams and Jets could be good news for the NFL, as these teams move one step closer to their Week 17 matchup determining relative seeding. The danger here, which I didn’t realize last week, is that if the Rams beat the Seahawks this week, even if the Cardinals also won, if the Seahawks then lost to the Niners the Rams would have the division, and potentially their seed, clinched before gametime (as their sweep of the Seahawks would make the difference in a three-way tie). Even without that, the league would probably prefer to avoid this as wild card seeding is of questionable consequence. On top of that, if both teams lose the result of the Bears-Packers game could make the difference as to whether the Cardinals are playing to make the playoffs at all; indeed if the Bears win out the Cardinals would actually be eliminated by game time.
  • Cowboys-Giants will be picked if: Washington loses AND the Giants win AND the Eagles beat the Cowboys AND none of the above scenarios happen. A second situation that could put an NFC East game in primetime the guy I linked to didn’t account for? This would put the Giants at 6-9 tied with a team they swept, the Eagles at 5-9-1, and the Cowboys at 5-10; because two teams ahead of them play each other, the Cowboys would thus be eliminated. A Giants win would give them the division with all tiebreakers, while a loss would put them behind the Bidens-Eagles winner. As before, this would be an unprecedented situation to put on Sunday night.
  • Both NFC East games may be picked if: The Giants win AND (Washington wins OR the Cowboys beat the Eagles) AND none of the above scenarios happen. Moving on to the highly speculative prospect of the league giving NBC two games to regionalize and reverse-mirror on one of their cable outlets. This is all about avoiding Washington clinching the division (which they could do with a win and a Giant loss) or the division lapsing into a scenario where it can come down to one game.
  • Packers-Bears and Falcons-Bucs may be picked if: The Packers win AND the Bears win AND the Cardinals win AND the Rams win AND the Bucs lose AND Washington wins AND the Giants lose AND (the Steelers win OR the Browns lose). A Packers win clinches the #1 overall seed no matter what the Saints do, meaning they have nothing to play for, while a Cardinals win eliminates the Vikings no matter what they do, meaning the Vikings-Saints result doesn’t matter. The Bears beat the Bucs so another Bucs loss and Bears win would go to the Bears if it’s a two-way tie; if the Cardinals lose to make it a three-way tie, both the Bears and Cardinals would have better conference records than the Bucs.
  • Both NFC South games may be picked if: The Saints lose AND the Bucs win AND Washington wins AND the Giants lose AND none of the above scenarios happen. This isn’t a great situation to go with, but the fact the Bucs would have already clinched a playoff spot in this scenario could actually work in its favor compared to the one below (without even getting into the name value of the teams and quarterbacks involved).
  • Both AFC South games may be picked if: The Colts win OR the Titans lose, AND Washington wins AND the Giants lose AND none of the above scenarios happen. Obviously if we do go with the last-resort option of picking and regionalizing two games this is the situation NBC would least like to be stuck with, seeing as it involves the least appetizing division in football from a television perspective. Note: if the Titans win and Colts lose, and that reverses itself next week, both teams would have identical 4-2 division records, identical records in common games, and identical 7-5 conference records, so the problem is that it would come down to strength of victory. The Titans’ unique wins would be against the Broncos, Bills, Ravens, and Jaguars; for the Colts it would be the Jets, Bengals, Texans, and Raiders. (Yes, the Colts, a likely playoff team, account for the Jags’ one win.) Right now the Titans’ unique wins are a combined 26-30 while the Colts’ unique losses are a combined 15-40-1 or 14-41-1, so the Titans have already locked up the strength of victory tiebreaker in this circumstance and thus would have clinched the division entering Week 17. Also note: if none of these scenarios happen (or if giving NBC two games isn’t actually an option), consider the prospect of the league giving NBC an afternoon game as was going to happen to Ravens-Steelers at one point, but I couldn’t begin to tell you which game that might be.

53 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 15

  1. Well all, it’s time to start looking at Flex Scheduling for Sunday Night Football. This happens from Weeks 5 through 18. Only 2 games can be flexed out from Weeks 5 through 10.

    Here’s my take on things so far.

    Week 7

    # 1 – Bengals(3-2) @ Ravens(4-1)
    # 2 – Bears(3-2) @ Buccaneers(4-1)

    Tentative – Colts(1-4) @ 49ers(2-3) – This game should be gone and replaced by either my #1 or my #2. I will check after my post and see if there were any changes to Week 7. Not counting any chickens for that.

    Week 8

    # 1 – Buccaneers(4-1) @ Saints(3-2)

    Tentative – Cowboys(4-1) @ Vikings(2-3) – can’t foresee this game being replaced

    Week 9

    # 1 – Titans(3-2) @ Rams(4-1)
    # 2 – Browns(3-2) @ Bengals(3-2)
    # 3 – Broncos(3-2) @ Cowboys(4-1)

    Tentative – Titans(3-2) @ Rams(4-1) – this will be the SNF game in Week 9 and is my current # 1

    Week 10

    Tentative – Chiefs(2-3) @ Raiders(3-2) – this game will stay put, well we’ll see. Things have gone a bit off of the rail for this game.

    Week 11

    Tentative – Steelers(2-3) @ Chargers(4-1) – the Steelers will be the team deciding if this game stays put and it’s chances were improved this week after the Steelers beat the Broncos

    Week 12

    Tentative – Browns(3-2) @ Ravens(4-1) – looks like the game we’ll see on Thanksgiving weekend and hell, why not.

    Week 13

    Tentative – 49ers(2-3) @ Seahawks(2-3) – With Wilson and Garappolo both out this game could be in some jeopardy

    Week 14

    Tentative – Bears(3-2) @ Packers(4-1) – The Bears win in Vegas definitely helped this game out

    Week 15

    Tentative – Saints(3-2) @ Buccaneers(4-1) – this looks like a lock to stay put

    Also of note for this week’s games: 2 of a pre-selected 5 games will be played on Sat. 12/18/21 on NFL Network exclusively

    Panthers(3-2) @ Bills(4-1) – looking good
    Raiders(3-2) @ Browns(3-2) – looking good
    Patriots(2-3) @ Colts(1-4)
    Jets(1-4) @ Dolphins(1-4)
    Redskins(2-3) @ Eagles(2-3)

    The decision has to be made by the conclusion of the Week 11 games at the latest

    Week 16

    Tentative – Redskins(2-3) @ Cowboys(4-1) – unless this game is a total mismatch and a much better alternative game is found, this stays put

    Week 17

    Tentative – Vikings(2-3) @ Packers(4-1) – I can see the Vikings improving and making this game pretty secure in its spot

    Week 18 (sounds so weird to say that)

    2 games will be moved from their preliminary Sunday slot to Sat. 01/08/22 and they’ll both be aired on ESPN/ABC. This is an interesting move to me. These 2 games and the SNF game will both be announced with the rest of the Week 18 schedule, at the conclusion of the Week 17 schedule (at the latest).

    Tentative – none of course

    Current Games and Records of each team

    Jets(1-4) @ Bills(4-1)
    Patriots(2-3) @ Dolphins(1-4)
    Steelers(2-3) @ Ravens(4-1) – might have a chance at a Nationally televised game
    Bengals(3-2) @ Browns(3-2) – currently looking good for a Nationally televised game
    Titans(3-2) @ Texans(1-4)
    Colts(1-4) @ Jaguars(0-5)
    Chiefs(2-3) @ Broncos(3-2) – I still believe the Broncos will keep this from being a Nationally televised game
    Chargers(4-1) @ Raiders(3-2) – currently looking good for a Nationally televised game
    Redskins(2-3) @ Giants(1-4)
    Cowboys(4-1) @ Eagles(2-3) – getting a tad better chance to be a Nationally televised game
    Packers(4-1) @ Lions(0-5)
    Bears(3-2) @ Vikings(2-3)
    Saints(3-2) @ Falcons(2-3)
    Panthers(3-2) @ Buccaneers(4-1) – currently looking good for a Nationally televised game
    Seahawks(2-3) @ Cardinals(5-0) – Wilson injury is going to hurt this
    49ers(2-3) @ Rams(4-1) – looking less likely now

    I currently have 2 games looking good, with some question marks for the 3 Nationally televised games in Week 18. We’ll see how that progresses.

    Any thoughts anyone?

    Go Pack Go this week at the Bears

  2. Geez NFL, why have Flex Scheduling in Week’s 5-10, since you won’t get rid of crap games and replace them with better options.

    No changes to the Week 7 schedule per


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