What the 2024 NFL Schedule Should Look Like

The 2024 NFL schedule is slated to be released tonight at 8 PM ET – not ideal as it falls in the middle of network upfront week, as opposed to past years when it was released before upfronts so networks could promote the games on their schedule, with the most likely culprit for the delay being ongoing negotiations with Netflix and Amazon for the slate of Christmas Day games that were unexpectedly added.

Last year, I published a list of the games that should have been given featured windows on the 2023 schedule but weren’t. As the year went along, however, I became increasingly convinced that the protections given to CBS and Fox in the new TV contracts had the effect of severely constricting the league’s schedule flexibility. If CBS and Fox no longer needed to protect divisional matchups if the other half had already been scheduled for another network, or if they no longer needed to protect games involving the biggest brands – the Cowboys and Chiefs – at all if they had the minimum eight games involving them, it suddenly became a lot more difficult to flex any games at all. The idea of “playing your way into primetime” had long been a joke, but now it had been rendered an outright lie. To the extent they ever wanted to, the league can no longer rely on flexible scheduling to deliver the best matchups to the biggest audiences. This became most apparent in Week 17, when a Dolphins-Ravens game to determine the #1 seed in the AFC was stuck in the early doubleheader window while CBS’ late window remained focused on a game between the Bengals, whose playoff chances without Joe Burrow were hanging by a thread, and the Chiefs, virtually locked into the 3 seed at that point, and while the Sunday night game involved two teams in the Packers and Vikings that, at the time, were on the outside looking in on the playoff picture. As it happened, I’d identified Dolphins-Ravens as one of the games that should have been given a featured window but wasn’t, and even suggested that if things played out exactly as expected, it would be a potential candidate to be flexed in for Packers-Vikings.

In short, the increased difficulty of flex scheduling means that the schedule that’s announced in May should set the league up for success as much as possible. At least down the stretch of the season, if the three main featured windows (the late doubleheader, Sunday night, and Monday night) don’t contain the three best games of the week, any game that is among the three best but is buried as an undercard should not be set up to be protected. In other words, they can’t be the most desirable game on the singleheader network, and if they’re on the doubleheader network then the main late game can’t be a divisional game where the other matchup is on another network, or a game involving the Cowboys or Chiefs – and such situations should generally be avoided during the main flex period in general, or at least avoiding having games with teams with significantly worse expected records hogging spots while games between teams expected to be .500 or above can’t or won’t be flexed in. Creating a situation where the league would want to pull a flex if teams perform exactly as expected is already something of a failure of schedule construction, as flexible scheduling should only come in if teams don’t perform as expected; creating a situation where the league would want to pull a flex but can’t should be completely unacceptable.

Given these constraints, it’s not enough for me to point to certain games and say they should have been given more prominent spots; I should be able to put together a schedule that maximizes distribution of the best games and teams and minimizes the likelihood of flexes being desirable but impossible, while still allowing for some diversity of teams featured, giving networks shots at the most desirable teams, and generally putting something together that looks like what the league might actually put together. That’s what I intend to do in this post: put together the sort of schedule that the league should be constructing. Details on how I put this together, as well as the schedule itself, after the jump. 

Read moreWhat the 2024 NFL Schedule Should Look Like

How the NBA and Comcast Might Be About to Destroy Warner Bros. Discovery

Over the course of just about two weeks, the reporting surrounding the NBA’s negotiations for a new TV deal has been a rollercoaster – and left me alternately supremely confused about the league’s thinking, and that of their potential partners, and worried about what will happen to the league’s longest-running partner.

Unlike the last round of NBA media rights deals, when ESPN and TNT renewed their agreements during their exclusive negotiating window, the league and their partners let the exclusive window lapse this time around – but shortly after the window expired, John Ourand reported in Puck that ESPN had “essentially come to terms” with the NBA on the league’s “A” package, which included continuing to be the exclusive home of the NBA Finals. The next day, Ourand’s former podcast partner Andrew Marchand reported in the Athletic that Amazon had reached a “framework for an agreement” that would give them a package of games as well, giving the NBA games exclusive to a streaming provider for the first time, and also that ESPN would be reducing its package of games from 100 to 80 “in one arrangement” – a surprisingly small reduction that wouldn’t be enough to remove a night of NBA games from ESPN’s schedule for an entire season.

Both of them reported that NBCUniversal remained in the running to fight with TNT over the remaining package, but the combination of the two reports seemed to suggest that NBC was a decided underdog. If ABC was going to retain all of the NBA Finals, that would remove a significant point of interest for any Comcast bid that contained a significant broadcast presence. Any continued presence of Comcast in the bidding would seem to be one that placed a high priority on games on its Peacock streaming service, with any NBC games as an added bonus along the lines of the two games NBC simulcasted with Peacock as part of the service’s “Sunday Leadoff” baseball package over the last two seasons. But now the NBA had reached a deal with Amazon, so its desire for a streaming component to its deals had already been met, and it would be a decided risk to sign a deal for games on another streaming service, one significantly smaller and more unproven than Prime Video, while abandoning a partner of such long vintage in TNT that they’d been airing games since before NBC’s previous stint with the league, one that had long attracted rave reviews for the quality of its coverage, both in-game and with its acclaimed “Inside the NBA” studio crew. Coupled with TNT’s right to match any competing offer, the chances of NBC making its triumphant return to the NBA seemed to have drastically diminished.

ESPN has a bit of a habit of rushing in early in TV negotiations and locking down enough rights to decidedly neuter the desirability of a package for a second partner and ensuring their pre-eminence within the sport. In 2012, it locked up all of their then-three Major League Baseball packages, effectively shutting Fox and NBC out of the packages that might have best boosted their respective sports networks, reducing Fox to giving FS1 Saturday games on crowded sports days with slates not worth airing on the broadcast network and a handful of weeknight games until the postseason. Then there’s ESPN’s current deal with the NHL, where ESPN picked up so much in the way of desirable rights, including ESPN’s choice of conference finals every year (in a league with a nearly two-in-three chance of at least one Canadian team reaching that round), that even with the Winter Classic and three out of seven Stanley Cup Finals still on the table as part of the B package, it was left too undesirable for anyone but TNT to take despite their lack of a broadcast network and existing commitment to AEW on Wednesday nights.

ESPN may well have seen securing all the Finals the same way. Ourand would later suggest that the NBA, famous for signing what’s widely considered the first cable-first deal for a major league when it left NBC for ESPN in 2002, now wanted the reach of a broadcast network for its “B” package. At his former employer, SportsBusiness Journal, Tom Friend reported that the NBA wanted to have ABC alternate the Finals with another partner, which ESPN fought tooth and nail until finally agreeing to pay $2.6 billion for a package with all the NBA Finals. ESPN might well have thought that by taking all the Finals, before most contenders other than TNT could even come to the table, they’d defang the one big attraction any package would have to broadcast networks and something that most would consider table stakes for any broadcast-centric package – ensuring that other than giving a handful of games to a streamer, the NBA wouldn’t have much choice but to perpetuate the status quo, helping to keep the price of all three packages down, and wouldn’t have any options other than ABC to provide that increased reach via broadcast television. That may help explain why TNT allowed their exclusive negotiating window to lapse without a deal, confident they could match any offer any other company could bring to the table dollar-for-dollar.

But both companies may have underestimated Comcast’s determination – and the result may well end up being the death warrant for all of Warner Bros. Discovery. 

Read moreHow the NBA and Comcast Might Be About to Destroy Warner Bros. Discovery

What to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 3

The week before the NFL Draft, John Ourand reported in his newsletter for Puck that ESPN’s contract to air the draft only runs through next year. Ourand noted that ESPN is expected to renew, and the implication I’ve gotten (not having read more than Awful Announcing’s write-up) was that he was merely noting that the NFL and ESPN were getting together to work on such a renewal, but I think most people could be forgiven for assuming from the mention of the draft when ESPN announced its most recent comprehensive agreement with the league in 2021 that ESPN had secured rights to the draft for the duration of the deal, and I’m inclined to think that Ourand would not have reported on this if some party didn’t want to influence the negotiations somehow, implying that a renewal might not be a formality, nor do I think the NFL would have awarded ESPN rights to the draft only through 2025 if they didn’t intend on seriously considering shaking up the status quo of the draft.

Prior to signing its most recent deals with its media partners, there was discussion of the notion that the league wanted the draft to be covered like the presidential election, with coverage on every network. Towards that end, the league had Fox, then preparing to start its first season airing Thursday Night Football, simulcast NFL Network’s coverage of the first two days of the 2018 Draft, with ESPN then agreeing to simulcast the third day’s coverage on ABC; from 2019 onwards, ABC has aired a separate production of the first two nights before simulcasting ESPN’s coverage on Day 3. Fox failing to even win the night against entertainment programming on the other broadcast networks seemed to make the notion of “presidential-election-style” coverage seem laughable, especially for CBS, but that might not be the only way to shake up draft coverage.

One approach could be to rotate exclusive, or at least primary, draft coverage across the broadcast networks; ABC/ESPN airing the 2025 draft would fit with rotating the draft on a two-year offset from the Super Bowl rotation, so each network gets either the draft or the Super Bowl every other year. The downside to this, though, is that the experts at ESPN and NFL Network have incentive to cover and assess every year’s slate of prospects to prepare for each year’s draft broadcast; having experts brought in to cover the draft only once every four years skews the incentives and could skew the coverage. On the other hand, having only a single network air the draft means you don’t have to synchronize commercial breaks across two networks and each prospect to take the stage only needs to be interviewed once, meaning you can reduce the lag between a pick coming in and being announced, reducing the opportunity and incentive for pick-tipping. (Also, rumors of the NFL taking a stake in ESPN, and ESPN taking over management of NFL Network, could reduce NFLN’s incentive to offer its own draft coverage, making consolidation on a single network easier.) Shaking up the draft could also be as simple as allowing Amazon to add their own coverage to the proceedings.

Besides that, circumstances in the television industry have changed substantially since 2018, with ratings for non-live primetime programming continuing to decline, accelerated by the change in viewing habits during the pandemic, and with The Big Bang Theory ending and Young Sheldon preparing to do the same, depriving CBS of its most popular Thursday programming. As it increasingly becomes the case that anything on a linear network that’s not a live event is just filler between live events, perhaps the notion of “presidential-election-style” coverage becomes more viable again – or at least, it’s worth the league talking to its partners on whether they want to cover the draft and how. My impression after 2018 and 2019 was that there wasn’t any reason for the league to move away from the status quo in place since then, but has presidential-election-style coverage become more viable, and if the league did decide to offer one network exclusive draft rights, how interested might each network, especially CBS, be? 

Read moreWhat to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 3

The WNBA Is at a Crossroads

Two weeks ago, a whopping 18.7 million viewers watched the NCAA women’s basketball championship between Iowa and South Carolina across ABC and the “Bird and Taurasi Show” on ESPN – not only the most watched basketball game, men’s or women’s, college or pro, since the 2019 men’s national championship (and topping every NBA game since the 2017 Finals), but the most watched sporting event at all, outside football and the Olympics, since the 2019 World Series.

Needless to say, it was the most-watched game in women’s college basketball history, breaking the record set by… the national semifinal between Iowa and UConn two days earlier, which drew 14.2 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2. That, in turn, broke the mark set by… the regional final the previous Monday between Iowa and LSU, which drew 12.3 million viewers to ESPN alone. An Elite Eight game on cable alone drew a larger audience than last year’s national championship between the same two teams on broadcast, which fell short of ten million, and indeed any previous women’s college basketball game, including when the women’s Final Four regularly aired on CBS in the 80s and 90s.

Obviously a lot of this has to do with the singular, and likely inimitable, phenomenon that is Iowa star Caitlin Clark, but it’s not just her; the most-watched game of the women’s tournament not involving Iowa or having Iowa as a lead-in or lead-out was undefeated South Carolina’s Elite Eight game, which still set the record for the most-watched Elite Eight game ever before Clark and Iowa blew it out of the water the following night. That game aired on ABC, which has only recently started airing women’s tournament games at all (let alone the national championship, which only started last year), but ESPN has aired three national championship games that failed to reach the 3.07 million viewers South Carolina’s win over Oregon State did, and of the 26 national championships that aired on cable alone from 1996 to 2022, only eight drew more than a million more viewers than South Carolina-Oregon State, two of them in the last two years before the title game moved to ABC.

So there’s reason to think that women’s college basketball can maintain some of its momentum and establish a new baseline for popularity. But it’ll have to do it without the forces that brought it to these heights this year. It’s not just that Clark has now left for the WNBA, drafted by the Indiana Fever; so has LSU’s Angel Reese, her nemesis in last year’s national championship game. So has the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso, both selected by the Chicago Sky to set up what could be a juicy Midwestern rivalry for years to come. UConn’s Paige Bueckers elected to return to college for another year, and even once she leaves the college game will be fine with the emergence of new stars such as USC’s freshman phenom Juju Watkins, not to mention all the young girls inspired by Clark and her cohorts that will come along over the next decade or two, but for now, all the biggest stars of this year’s tournament will now be the territory of the WNBA for the foreseeable future.

And therein lies an enormous opportunity… if the WNBA can put itself in position to take advantage of it. 

Read moreThe WNBA Is at a Crossroads

What Would – and Should – 32-Team Divisional Alignments Look Like for the NBA and MLB?

America’s major professional team sports leagues have had a long period of stability since the early part of this century, with three leagues sitting at 30 teams while the NFL went forward with 32, but that may be changing. The NHL has already increased the size of its league to 32, and by most accounts the NBA and MLB may follow suit by the end of this decade.

When it comes to organizing leagues into conferences and divisions, 32, as a power of 2, is close to an ideal number; not for nothing did baseball have two eight-team leagues for decades prior to the advent of expansion in 1961. It gives the flexibility to create either four divisions of eight teams each, as in the NHL, or eight of four, as in the NFL – with the latter being more interesting and allowing more schedule flexibility and a greater emphasis on rivalries.

On Sunday Nate Silver gave his ideal divisional alignment for a 32-team MLB, opting to go with eight divisions of four teams. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while myself, and I need to get a post out by the end of the month while buying myself some time to work on more substantial posts I mostly spent this month putting off, so I decided to piggyback off of his proposal to present my own visions for how to divide 32-team leagues not only in MLB, but in the NBA and even NHL as well. 

Read moreWhat Would – and Should – 32-Team Divisional Alignments Look Like for the NBA and MLB?

Cantonmetrics: 2024 Inductions and Offseason Snapshot

Senior/Coach/Contributor Semifinalists

Congratulations to Julius Peppers, Andre Johnson, Dwight Freeney, Devin Hester, Patrick Willis, Randy Gradishar, and Steve McMichael on their induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now it’s time to look at how this year’s selection process affects who the players most likely to get in next year are, and with the 2023 season fully at a close, what active and recently-retired players have most built their resumes for eventual induction into Canton. 

Read moreCantonmetrics: 2024 Inductions and Offseason Snapshot

The Game to Show the Games Podcast: Episode 1 (of 1?)


I don’t know if I’m going to do any more of these. I’m glad I did it, I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it, and I won’t rule out doing more audio stuff in the future (weird voice and all), but it took a lot out of me, chewed up most of my week, and I realized that if I were to spend more of it speaking off the cuff – even (perhaps especially) if I had a cohost – I’d probably leave a lot of dead air as I thought about what to say, which wouldn’t mesh well with the gimmick I came up with, and which would be a problem when writing a script takes almost as much effort for each topic as a full-fledged blog post would. (I mention I have a partially-written post on Pat McAfee sitting in my drafts, and I may end up publishing it largely adapted from what I say about him here.) It’s an interesting idea and I think you’ll find the result interesting as well, but I’m not sure this format is for me.

After the jump, timestamps and relevant links for each segment. 

Read moreThe Game to Show the Games Podcast: Episode 1 (of 1?)

NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 16

Note: This post does not incorporate the result of the Thursday or Saturday night games.

Perhaps predictably, over the past week social media has erupted with people moaning about why Dolphins-Ravens, the game likely to determine the #1 seed in the AFC, is trapped in the early singleheader, why it wasn’t moved to 4:25 or Sunday night. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened in recent years, and CBS sure is trying its best to show it to as much of the country as possible, but it is notable that even leaving aside the jockeying between networks and the increased protections CBS and Fox get in the new contracts, this game could have easily been moved to the late afternoon and stayed on CBS. Instead, before any of last week’s games were even played CBS opted to stick with the Burrow-less disappointing Bengals against the Chiefs. Lo and behold, once the week’s results played out the Bengals’ win streak with Jake Browning at quarterback had come to an abrupt halt, leaving the Bengals hanging on to the possibility of a playoff spot by a thread, and the Chiefs had stumbled to the Raiders, keeping the silver and black’s own threadbare playoff hopes alive and nearly locking the Chiefs into the 3 seed, especially when coupled with Dolphins and Ravens wins against two of the best teams in the NFC.

It’s a reminder that as much as the NFL has a nationalized fanbase, the people who want to watch the best, most important games between the best teams, at least in the regular season, are still a distinct minority compared to those that just want to watch the teams they’re fans of or the most attractive, biggest-name teams. A Chiefs game this year always carries the possibility of a Taylor Swift bump, but even without the Swift factor the Chiefs are one of the three most attractive teams in the league right now, by far the most attractive in the AFC, the most dominant team in the league in recent years with some of its biggest stars. They’re not the Cowboys – if the Chiefs-Patriots game that got flexed out earlier this year for Eagles-Seahawks had been Cowboys-Patriots I think it keeps its spot – but they are one of those teams that can pop a rating by their mere presence. On the flip side, let’s not forget that the Dolphins produced one of the worst December Sunday Night Football ratings ever when they were flexed in down the stretch of last season – contributing to the league’s decision to plug Lions-Packers into Sunday night of Week 18 instead of a game that wouldn’t become meaningless for one team by the time it kicked off. Couple that with the Bengals and Chiefs still being very much in the playoff hunt, and that’s why my prediction last week was that if Dolphins-Ravens was going to be moved to a later time at all, it would be into Sunday night, not the late afternoon window.

That being said, while the games scheduled for featured windows before the season are determined as much by popularity as by how they’re expected to perform, the flexible scheduling regime is still governed by how good the teams are. The game originally scheduled for a primetime window will keep its spot unless there’s a compelling reason to move out of it, but if it is flexed out the game that replaces it will generally be determined by what game has the best pair of records, and there have been times when a passable game scheduled for Sunday night has nonetheless been flexed out in favor of a game that seemed to be too good to be as weakly distributed as it otherwise would have been. Mike North has repeatedly stated in recent seasons that the league wants to give every playoff team exposure in national windows before the playoffs so that audiences have some familiarity with the team before the playoffs hit – obscure, unpopular, yet good teams aren’t going to become more popular if they continue to languish in obscurity. So the NFL does try to put the best games in the best windows.

Well, Dolphins-Ravens ranked #4 on my list of Games That Should Be Nationally Televised But Aren’t that I wrote before the season, where I even raised the prospect of it being flexed in for Packers-Vikings. In my tier structure based on preseason win totals at sportsbooks I introduced a few weeks ago, it was a Tier 2 game, meaning if the best games of the year were distributed evenly, it would be the second-best game of its week. Given the poor ratings for the Dolphins on SNF last year and the perception that the AFC North was still the Bengals’ to lose, I can’t completely fault the league for not putting the game in a featured window to begin with, but I can fault the league for scheduling it this late in the season but punting it to the early doubleheader while giving the Sunday night timeslot to a game involving a Packers team expected to finish below .500, New Year’s Eve or no. The league had to be aware that if things played out exactly as expected, CBS would have two games between big-time playoff contenders with win totals no lower than 9.5 while SNF would have a game involving a team on the fringes of the playoff picture at best, yet because CBS was scheduled for only eight Chiefs appearances the league wouldn’t be able to flex either one in. To be sure, the league and CBS couldn’t have figured that, while CBS would have the game between the AFC’s two best teams, it wouldn’t be the one they thought it’d be. Still, I feel like while the league and its TV partners can mess around with games involving popular teams for the first three months of the season, once December hits they need to stop messing around. If the flexible windows don’t contain what are expected to be the best games of their respective weeks, not counting games in featured inflexible windows, then the games that are the best need to be in a position where they can be flexed in, period. At the very least, if they’re serious about “playing your way into primetime” they need to minimize the risk of something like this happening.

How NFL flexible scheduling works: (see also the NFL’s own page on flex schedule procedures)

  • Up to two games in Weeks 5-10 (the “early flex” period), and any number of games from Week 11 onward, may be flexed into Sunday Night Football. Any number of games from Week 12 onward may be flexed into Monday Night Football, and up to two games from Week 13 onward may be flexed into Thursday Night Football. In addition, in select weeks in December a number of games may be listed as “TBD”, with two or three of those games being assigned to be played on Saturday. Note that I only cover early flexes if a star player on one of the teams is injured.
  • Only games scheduled for Sunday afternoon, or set aside for a potential move to Saturday, may be flexed into one of the flex-eligible windows – not existing primetime games or games in other standalone windows. The game currently listed in the flex-eligible window will take the flexed-in game’s space on the Sunday afternoon slate, generally on the network that the flexed-in game was originally scheduled for. The league may also move Sunday afternoon games between 1 PM ET and 4:05 or 4:25 PM ET.
  • Thursday Night Football flex moves must be announced 28 days in advance. Sunday and Monday Night Football moves must be announced 12 days in advance, except for Sunday night games in Week 14 onward, which can be announced at any point up until 6 days in advance.
  • CBS and Fox have the right to protect one game each per week, among the games scheduled for their networks, from being flexed into primetime windows. During the early flex period, they may protect games at any point once the league tells them they’re thinking of pulling the flex. It’s not known when they must protect games in the main flex period, only that it’s “significantly closer to each game date” relative to the old deadline of Week 5. My assumption is that protections are due five weeks in advance, in accordance with the 28-day deadline for TNF flexes. Protections have never been officially publicized, and have not leaked en masse since 2014, so can only be speculated on.
  • Supposedly, CBS and Fox are also guaranteed one half of each division rivalry. Notably, some Week 18 games (see below) have their other halves scheduled for the other conference’s network, though none are scheduled for primetime.
  • No team may appear more than seven times in primetime windows – six scheduled before the season plus one flexed in. This appears to consider only the actual time the game is played; Amazon’s Black Friday game does not count even though the rest of their TNF slate does, and NBC’s Saturday afternoon game Week 16 doesn’t count but their Peacock game that night does. This post contains a list of all teams’ primetime appearances entering the season.
  • Teams may play no more than two Thursday games following Sunday games, and (apparently) no more than one of them can be on the road.
  • In Week 18 the entire schedule, consisting entirely of games between divisional opponents, is set on six days’ notice, usually during the previous week’s Sunday night game. One game will be scheduled for Sunday night, usually a game that decides who wins the division, a game where the winner is guaranteed to make the playoffs while the loser is out, or a game where one team makes the playoffs with a win but falls behind the winner of another game, and thus loses the division and/or misses the playoffs, with a loss. Two more games with playoff implications are scheduled for Saturday on ABC and ESPN, with the remaining games doled out to CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoon, with the league generally trying to maximize what each team has to play for. Protections and appearance limits do not apply to Week 18.
  • Click here to learn how to read the charts.

Read moreNFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 16

Cantonmetrics: 2024 Finalists

Offseason Snapshot | Senior/Coach/Contributor Semifinalists | All-Snub Team

Each year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame names at least 15 modern-era players (more if there’s a tie for the last spot), narrowed down from the semifinalists named in November, who played at least part of their careers in the past 25 years and have been retired at least 5, as finalists for induction to the Hall of Fame. Before Super Bowl LVIII, the panel will meet virtually and narrow down the list of modern-era finalists down to five. Those five will be considered alongside three senior candidates and one coach or contributor, each selected by nine-member subpanels of the larger panel last August, for a total of eight. From this list, at least four and no more than nine people will be selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Unless they have only a handful of years of eligibility left, players that are named finalists are almost always inducted eventually, so this provides a glimpse at what players can look forward to eventual induction.

Read moreCantonmetrics: 2024 Finalists

NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 15

Note: This post does not incorporate the result of the Thursday night or Saturday games (mostly).

So despite my use of a “cheat sheet” after what happened in 2021 this post came pretty close to going the same way. I’m inclined to blame it on the problems I ran into trying to fly to Seattle, but I still didn’t spend any time working on this on Friday. Maybe I should see if I can find a way to start working on this another week in advance? But the combinations involved multiply exponentially another week out.

One thing that occurred to me while I was working on the Week 17 section (before Thursday’s news) was that the eight-game minimum that applied to Cowboys games on Fox almost certainly doesn’t apply across the board. Only eleven out of 30 teams on my primetime appearance count list were scheduled to air on their respective conference’s network more than eight times, which would severely limit the league’s ability to pull the flex; notably, the Seahawks are among the teams scheduled for only eight Fox games, so flexing them in for Chiefs-Patriots would seem to have put them below the minimum. It had always been reported that CBS and Fox could choose a certain number of teams to air a minimum number of times on their air, but without any firm measure of what those numbers are I think there was a tendency to assume that the former number would apply across the board just to simplify things, avoid having to figure out what those teams were, and align with CBS and Fox maintaining their overall conference affiliations (and I think some things some executives said may have contributed to that perception), but clearly there is a discretionary element involved here. (That said, I suspect there is a smaller minimum that does apply across the board.) Eight games makes sense as the overall minimum to apply to the teams the networks choose, and the number of teams they can choose is probably pretty low for the Steelers to be scheduled for only seven CBS games, but even before Swiftmania came to Kansas City the Chiefs were probably one of the teams CBS did choose, which has relevance to the Week 17 flex because it removes any remaining doubt that they protected Dolphins-Ravens.

How NFL flexible scheduling works: (see also the NFL’s own page on flex schedule procedures)

  • Up to two games in Weeks 5-10 (the “early flex” period), and any number of games from Week 11 onward, may be flexed into Sunday Night Football. Any number of games from Week 12 onward may be flexed into Monday Night Football, and up to two games from Week 13 onward may be flexed into Thursday Night Football. In addition, in select weeks in December a number of games may be listed as “TBD”, with two or three of those games being assigned to be played on Saturday. Note that I only cover early flexes if a star player on one of the teams is injured.
  • Only games scheduled for Sunday afternoon, or set aside for a potential move to Saturday, may be flexed into one of the flex-eligible windows – not existing primetime games or games in other standalone windows. The game currently listed in the flex-eligible window will take the flexed-in game’s space on the Sunday afternoon slate, generally on the network that the flexed-in game was originally scheduled for. The league may also move Sunday afternoon games between 1 PM ET and 4:05 or 4:25 PM ET.
  • Thursday Night Football flex moves must be announced 28 days in advance. Sunday and Monday Night Football moves must be announced 12 days in advance, except for Sunday night games in Week 14 onward, which can be announced at any point up until 6 days in advance.
  • CBS and Fox have the right to protect one game each per week, among the games scheduled for their networks, from being flexed into primetime windows. During the early flex period, they may protect games at any point once the league tells them they’re thinking of pulling the flex. It’s not known when they must protect games in the main flex period, only that it’s “significantly closer to each game date” relative to the old deadline of Week 5. My assumption is that protections are due five weeks in advance, in accordance with the 28-day deadline for TNF flexes. Protections have never been officially publicized, and have not leaked en masse since 2014, so can only be speculated on.
  • Supposedly, CBS and Fox are also guaranteed one half of each division rivalry. Notably, some Week 18 games (see below) have their other halves scheduled for the other conference’s network, though none are scheduled for primetime.
  • No team may appear more than seven times in primetime windows – six scheduled before the season plus one flexed in. This appears to consider only the actual time the game is played; Amazon’s Black Friday game does not count even though the rest of their TNF slate does, and NBC’s Saturday afternoon game Week 16 doesn’t count but their Peacock game that night does. This post contains a list of all teams’ primetime appearances entering the season.
  • Teams may play no more than two Thursday games following Sunday games, and (apparently) no more than one of them can be on the road.
  • In Week 18 the entire schedule, consisting entirely of games between divisional opponents, is set on six days’ notice, usually during the previous week’s Sunday night game. One game will be scheduled for Sunday night, usually a game that decides who wins the division, a game where the winner is guaranteed to make the playoffs while the loser is out, or a game where one team makes the playoffs with a win but falls behind the winner of another game, and thus loses the division and/or misses the playoffs, with a loss. Two more games with playoff implications are scheduled for Saturday on ABC and ESPN, with the remaining games doled out to CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoon, with the league generally trying to maximize what each team has to play for. Protections and appearance limits do not apply to Week 18.
  • Click here to learn how to read the charts.

Read moreNFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 15