Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 5

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 17; and week 18. 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. Note: This year NBC’s press release indicated that the main flex period begins in Week 11 even though Christmas falls on Sunday. I’m assuming this is correct and the result of NBC still being able to have six weeks in the main flex period despite this because of the expansion of the season.
  • In all cases, only games scheduled for Sunday may be moved to Sunday night. Thursday and Monday night games are not affected by Sunday night flexible scheduling (discounting the “flexible scheduling” applied to Saturdays in December in recent years – 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, historically 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 18, 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 and 2020, respectively, were the first times it showed such games. 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, except for two games moved to Saturday to be simulcast on ESPN and ABC.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 11 (November 20):

  • Tentative game: Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 2-3 v. 1-4. I saw some speculation in the comments of the appearance count post and on the 506sports Discord over whether Steelers-Dolphins would be flexed out Week 7, with the conclusion that it would keep its spot because of how dire the rest of the slate was once CBS and Fox got their protections in and the unique reasons for scheduling that game (it’s the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Dolphins’ unbeaten season, with the Steelers being the team they beat in the AFC Championship Game that year, plus Steelers assistant Brian Flores returns to the team he sued for firing him). This game doesn’t have that going for it, nor do the Steelers’ opponents have the saving grace of at least being above .500.
  • Likely protections: Chiefs-Chargers or Cowboys-Vikings (CBS) and Bears-Falcons, Rams-Saints, or nothing (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Either of CBS’ potentially protected games would be very strong; Chiefs-Chargers pits the top two teams in the AFC West after the barnburner they put on to start Amazon’s TNF slate, while Cowboys-Vikings is a battle of 4-1 teams (and probably more likely to be protected, because Cowboys). As such, this might be the likeliest flex candidate of the year. Eagles-Colts is the next-best game on the slate with Browns-Bills and Jets-Patriots joining Fox’s potentially protected games as dark horses.

Week 12 (November 27):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Philadelphia
  • Prospects: 3-2 v. 5-0; arguably an even better game than NBC thought they were getting, pitting Aaron Rodgers against the league’s last unbeaten team.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Jaguars, Bengals-Titans, Chargers-Cardinals, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Chiefs, Saints-49ers, or nothing (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games; Giants-Cowboys on Thanksgiving is the only other game all week pitting two teams above .500. Bucs-Browns, Bears-Jets, and the potentially protected games all have 2-3 teams facing teams above .500, making them the closest thing to something that can unseat Packers-Eagles.

Week 13 (December 4):

  • Tentative game: Indianapolis @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 2-2-1 v. 4-1. Has the potential to get lopsided, but never bet on a Cowboys game being flexed out for any reason.
  • Likely protections: Jets-Vikings, Chiefs-Bengals, or nothing (CBS) and Titans-Eagles or Dolphins-49ers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Jets-Vikings and Fox’s potentially protected games are the only games pitting two teams above .500. Broncos-Ravens, Packers-Bears, and Chiefs-Bengals are dark horses.

Week 14 (December 11):

  • Tentative game: Kansas City @ Denver
  • Prospects: 4-1 v. 2-3. Could be concerningly lopsided, but if the Broncos offense can get in sync with Russell Wilson this could still be a worthy Sunday night game.
  • Likely protections: Jets-Bills or Dolphins-Chargers (CBS) and Bucs-49ers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Eagles-Giants joins CBS’ potentially protected games as contenders. Browns-Bengals and Jaguars-Titans are dark horses.

Week 15 (December 18):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Las Vegas
  • Prospects: 2-3 v. 1-4 and the two worst teams in their respective divisions.
  • Likely protections: Probably Titans-Chargers (CBS) and Cowboys-Jaguars, Eagles-Bears, or nothing (FOX).
  • Other possible games: As usual, assuming the games set aside for a potential move to Saturday can’t be protected; Dolphins-Bills is the clear favorite on the slate right now, followed by Colts-Vikings, with Ravens-Browns and Falcons-Saints looking to jump in if any of those teams improve. Unfortunately Titans-Chargers is the only other game on the Sunday slate pitting two teams above .500, leaving Bengals-Bucs and Fox’s potentially protected games as dark horses. NBC may be stuck with this one.

Week 17 (January 1):

  • Tentative game: LA Rams @ LA Chargers
  • Prospects: 2-3 v. 3-2. Seems decidedly mediocre, but there’s a lot of room for the game to break in any direction this early in the season.
  • Likely protections: Vikings-Packers (CBS) and Saints-Eagles, Jets-Seahawks, or nothing (FOX).
  • Other possible games: After Vikings-Packers, Colts-Giants is the next best game on the Sunday slate. Broncos-Chiefs and Dolphins-Patriots join Fox’s potentially protected games as dark horses.

Week 18 (January 8):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 5”

  1. Repost from the previous thread as these were my thoughts:

    NO CHANGES through Week 10:

    Week 11: Bengals-Steelers could be flexed out as the Steelers could be 1-7 by the time this decision has to be made (Steelers have their bye in Week 9). We could see Chargers-Chiefs moved to SNF because CBS already has Cowboys-Vikings in the 4:25 PM ET slot and that is likely the game CBS protects that week. Normally, Jets-Pats would be possible but the Pats play on Thanksgiving night and the following Thursday.

    Week 12: Even if the Pack falters, this is unlikely to be changed because there are no other suitable games to do it with.

    Week 13: Not likely to change because the Colts as bad as they are likely to be in contention for the AFC South (where the winner could be 8-9 or worse) and again, no suitable replacement.

    Week 14: Broncos have been a massive disappointment and I could see if the Giants continue to play like they are AND it’s not protected by FOX Eagles-Giants moved to SNF. Otherwise, Dolphins-Chargers, currently in 4:05 purgatory could be moved to SNF.

    Week 15: Too early to tell. Pats-Raiders on shaky ground, however, and I could see Titans-Chargers be moved to SNF.

    Week 16 doesn’t have a flex. This is where the NFL should have had the bulk of the games on Monday, December 26 (day after Christmas that is the actual legal holiday for such) though as noted I suspect the station managers of FOX affiliates objected to that due to their having numerous pre-emptions during the World Cup in November and December and the syndicators of shows that normally air on FOX stations in the daytime probably made clear they could not pre-empt for NFL games on 12/26 since the week of 12/26-30 likely is re-airs of shows that first aired during the World Cup pre-empted by FOX affiliates. Otherwise, it would have set up for ESPN/ABC to have a flex that Monday night.

    Week 17: Rams-Chargers likely stays there almost no matter what because logistics and it being New Year’s Day likely make it next-to-impossible to do a flex.

    Week 18: If Giants-Eagles is for the NFC East, THAT is the Sunday Night finale unless Cowboys-Commanders also matters. If both games matter towards the playoffs, I can see them being the two Saturday games on ESPN/ABC. Otherwise, too early to tell.

  2. My repost from the previous thread.

    Hello NFL SNF Flex Scheduling lovers,

    Here’s my take on things after Week 5.

    Week 7 – scheduled game is: Pitt.(1-4) @ Mia.(3-2)

    My choices so far:

    #1 – K.C.(4-1) @ S.F.(3-2)
    #2 – Ind,(2-2-1) @ Tenn.(3-2)

    The scheduled game of Steelers/Dolphins would normally look to be in some serious jeopardy and Chiefs/49ers would be a great choice, but are Chiefs maxed out already? Colts/Titans looks pretty decent now too, but the NFL hates having the AFC South in Primetime. I say the NFL keeps the tentative, because of the Steelers name recognition and not wanting to screw the Dolphins out of their 1st SNF game in eons.

    Week 8 – scheduled game is: G.B.(3-2) @ Buff.(4-1)

    #1 – G.B.(3-1) @ Buff.(3-1)

    The tentative game will stay the SNF game, no doubts. Especially since no other eligible Sunday game has a matchup of 2 teams at .500 and above.

    Week 9 – scheduled game is: Tenn.(3-2) @ K.C.(4-1)

    #1 – Tenn.(3-2) @ K.C.(4-1)
    #2 – Buff.(4-1) @ N.Y.J.(3-2)

    The tentative looks to be going nowhere else on the NFL schedule.

    Week 10 – scheduled game is: L.A.C.(3-2) @ S.F.(3-2) <—very likely to stay

    Main Flex period:

    Week 11 – scheduled game is: Cin.(2-3) @ Pitt.(1-4) <—looking extemely shaky due to the Steelers

    Week 12 – scheduled game is: G.B.(3-2) @ Phil.(5-0) <—100% this stays

    Week 13 – scheduled game is: Ind.(2-2-1) @ Dal.(4-1) <—very likely to stay, especially with great 12-9 Colts OT win on Thursday Night Football over Broncos

    Week 14 – scheduled game is: K.C.(4-1) @ Den.(2-3) <—this matchup was in Primetime both times last year and is likely to stay, but I sure hope not

    Week 15 – scheduled game is: N.E.(2-3) @ L.V.(1-4) <—will both teams be so bad and ruin the Belichick/McDaniels matchup?

    Week 16 – scheduled game is: T.B.(3-2) @ Ariz.(2-3) <—can't be flexed, as it's set in stone due to being on Christmas

    Week 17 – scheduled game is: L.A.R.(2-3) @ L.AC.(3-2) <—likely to stay

    Week 18 – no scheduled SNF game and 2 games moving to Saturday

    N.E.(2-3) @ Buff.(4-1)
    N.Y.J.(3-2) @ Mia.(3-2)
    Balt.(3-2) @ Cin.(2-3)
    Clev.(2-3) @ Pitt.(1-4)
    Hou.(1-3-1) @ Ind.(2-2-1)
    Tenn.(3-2) @ Jack.(2-3)
    L.A.C.(3-2) @ Den.(2-3)
    K.C.(4-1) @ L.V.(1-4)
    N.Y.G.(4-1) @ Phil.(5-0)
    Dal.(4-1) @ Wash.(1-4)
    Minn.(4-1) @ Chi.(2-3)
    Det.(1-4) @ G.B.(3-2)
    T.B.(3-2) @ Atl.(2-3)
    Car.(1-4) @ N.O.(2-3)
    Ariz.(2-3) @ S.F.(3-2)
    L.A.R.(2-3) @ Sea.(2-3)

    Still a bit too early to comment on anything for Week 18 yet, but it won't be for much longer.

    Go Pack Go vs the Jets this week at Lambeau.

  3. Hello NFL SNF Flex Scheduling lovers,

    Here’s my take on things after Week 6.

    Week 8 – scheduled game is: G.B.(3-3) @ Buff.(5-1)

    #1 – G.B.(3-3) @ Buff.(5-1)
    #2 – N.E.(3-3) @ N.Y.J.(4-2)
    #3 – N.Y.G.(5-1) @ Sea.(3-3)
    #4 – S.F.(3-3) @ L.A.R.(3-3)

    The tentative game will stay the SNF game, no doubts, in spite of 3 other games featuring teams at .500 and above. However, I think it’s possible that same of the early and late game switch starting times.

    Week 9 – scheduled game is: Tenn.(3-2) @ K.C.(4-2)

    #1 – Buff.(5-1) @ N.Y.J.(4-2)
    #2 – Tenn.(3-2) @ K.C.(4-2)
    #3 – Ind.(3-2-1) @ N.E.(3-3)
    #4 – L.A.C.(4-2) @ Atl.(3-3)
    #5 – L.A.R.(3-3) @ T.B.(3-3)

    The tentative looks to be going nowhere else on the NFL schedule, though Bills/Jets has moved to my #1. Intriguing game.

    Week 10 – scheduled game is: L.A.C.(4-2) @ S.F.(3-3)

    #1 – Minn.(5-1) @ Buff.(5-1)
    #2 – Dal.(4-2) @ G.B.(3-3)
    #3 – L.A.C.(4-2) @ S.F.(3-3)

    The tentative is very likely to keep its place at this point, but wow, what a fun matchup of Vikings/Bills that should at least move to the late slot of games.

    Main Flex period:

    Week 11 – scheduled game is: Cin.(3-3) @ Pitt.(2-4) <—with the Steelers win this past weekend vs the Bucs, this game is looking much better to stay

    Week 12 – scheduled game is: G.B.(3-3) @ Phil.(6-0) <—100% this stays, but starting to look pretty damned lopsided due to my Packers 🙁

    Week 13 – scheduled game is: Ind.(3-2-1) @ Dal.(4-2) <—very likely to stay, especially now that their records are as close as they are

    Week 14 – scheduled game is: K.C.(4-2) @ Den.(2-4) <—this matchup was in Primetime both times last year and is likely to stay, but I sure hope not and I even more hope not now

    Week 15 – scheduled game is: N.E.(3-3) @ L.V.(1-4) <—will the Raiders be so bad and ruin the Belichick/McDaniels matchup?

    Also, 3 of 5 games will move to Saturday and they are:

    Mia.(3-3) @ Buff.(5-1) <—looking pretty strong, especially with Tua coming back and if he stays healthy
    Balt.(3-3) @ Clev.(2-4) <—not too likely now
    Ind.(3-2-1) @ Minn.(5-1) <—looking more promising each week
    Atl.(3-3) @ N.O.(2-4) <—not likely at all
    N.Y.G.(5-1) @ Wash.(2-4) <—because it's big market teams, it's looking okay at the moment, though it's a pretty lopsided matchup

    Week 16 – scheduled game is: T.B.(3-3) @ Ariz.(2-4) <— can't be flexed, as it's set in stone due to being on Christmas

    Week 17 – scheduled game is: L.A.R.(3-3) @ L.AC.(4-2) <— very likely to stay

    Week 18 – no scheduled SNF game and 2 games moving to Saturday

    N.E.(3-3) @ Buff.(5-1) <—can't move to Saturday
    N.Y.J.(4-2) @ Mia.(3-3) <—might be affected by Bills not being able to play on Saturday and could preclude them from doing so as well
    Balt.(3-3) @ Cin.(3-3) <—can't move to Saturday
    Clev.(2-4) @ Pitt.(2-4) <—not looking like a move to Saturday would be in the cards anyway
    Hou.(1-3-1) @ Ind.(3-2-1) <—not a good Saturday game candidate
    Tenn.(3-2) @ Jack.(2-4) <—not a good Saturday game candidate
    L.A.C.(4-2) @ Den.(2-4) <—not a good Saturday game candidate
    K.C.(4-2) @ L.V.(1-4) <—not a good Saturday game candidate
    N.Y.G.(5-1) @ Phil.(6-0) <—looking to be the frontrunner for Game 272 on SNF in Week 18
    Dal.(4-2) @ Wash.(2-4) <—not a good Saturday game candidate
    Minn.(5-1) @ Chi.(2-4) <—not a good Saturday game candidate
    Det.(1-4) @ G.B.(3-3) <—not a good Saturday game candidate
    T.B.(3-3) @ Atl.(3-3) <—could be a good candidate to move to Saturday, but so early still
    Car.(1-5) @ N.O.(2-4) <—not a good Saturday game candidate
    Ariz.(2-4) @ S.F.(3-3) <—could be a good candidate to move to Saturday, but so early still
    L.A.R.(3-3) @ Sea.(3-3) <—could be a good candidate to move to Saturday, but so early still

    Remember, due to Buffalo and Cincinnati playing on MNF in Week 17, they will not be able to play on Saturday in Week 18 and that also leads to the potential of no matchup from the AFC East and AFC North moving to Saturday.

    Go Pack Go in Washington this week to play the Commanders. Gotta get it going boys!

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