NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.
The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.
Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that even with the bit about the early flexes, this was written with the 2007 season in mind, hence why it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):
- Begins Sunday of Week 5
- In effect during Weeks 5-17
- Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
- Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
- The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
- The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
- No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
- The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:15 p.m. ET.
- Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
- The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
- Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
- NFL schedules all games.
- Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
- Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
- In the past, three teams could appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC. I don’t know how the expansion of the Thursday Night schedule affects this, if it does. No team starts the season completely tapped out at any measure; ten teams have five primetime appearances each, but only the Packers, Bears, 49ers, Steelers, and Saints don’t have games in the main flex period, and all have games in the early flex period. I don’t know if both of the games scheduled for 12/20 count towards the total, or only the one in primetime. NBC appearances for all teams: GB 3 (2 semi-flexible), SEA 3 (1 flexible), IND 2 (1 flexible), DEN 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), CHI 2 (1 semi-flexible), SF 3 (1 semi-flexible), PIT 2 (1 semi-flexible), CAR 1, NO 2 (1 semi-flexible), DAL 3 (2 flexible), CIN 1, NE 3 (2 flexible), NYG 2 (1 flexible), PHI 3 (1 flexible, 1 ?), BAL 1 (semi-flexible), KC 1 (flexible), SD 1 (flexible), ARI 1 (flexible). All primetime appearances for all teams: GB 5 (2 semi-flexible), SEA 4 (1 flexible), IND 5 (1 flexible), DEN 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), CHI 5 (1 semi-flexible), SF 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 ?), PIT 5 (1 semi-flexible), CAR 3, NO 5 (1 semi-flexible), DAL 5 (2 flexible), CIN 3, NE 5 (2 flexible), NYG 5 (1 flexible), PHI 4 (1 flexible), BAL 3 (1 semi-flexible), KC 3 (1 flexible), SD 4 (1 flexible, 1 ?), ARI 3 (1 flexible), DET 1, NYJ 3, WAS 4 (1 ?), STL 2, HOU 2, TEN 2, MIA 2, ATL 2, all other teams 1.
Briefly, here are the current early-season games and their prospects for being flexed out:
- Week 7: San Francisco (3-2) @ Denver (3-1). The 49ers started out 1-2, but now that they’ve climbed back above .500 I don’t think you waste an early flex on this. No chance of being flexed out.
- Week 8: Green Bay (3-2) @ New Orleans (2-3). A bit chintzy, but it is still two name teams and it’s still Aaron Rodgers v. Drew Brees.
- Week 9: Baltimore (3-2) @ Pittsburgh (3-2). Again, not a great game, but still a marquee rivalry between two teams above .500.
- Week 10: Chicago (2-3) @ Green Bay (3-2). Basically the same situation as Packers-Saints, except Chicago isn’t quite as big a name (but still a big market) and Jay Cutler isn’t Drew Brees. The Bears would need to look pretty bad for this game to lose its spot, but if the NFL still has one or both early flexes left they could easily burn it on this.
I held off on making this post because I wanted to find out how the new “cross-flex” system affected how protections worked, if at all; the purpose of protections is to protect the afternoon packages, so it seems to defeat the point of protections if you can protect a game from NBC only to lose it to CBS or Fox. On the other hand, that would seem to defeat the point of the cross-flex system, whose main purpose was billed as beefing up the late spot of the doubleheader, which would seem to be difficult to do if you can only move games you could move to SNF anyway (although the tentative game bias would seem to produce at least a few candidates). And then there’s the fact that some games in the flex period have already been picked for cross-flexing, meaning they could be protected by networks that wouldn’t normally have them… Regardless, for now I’m going to assume protections work as they have in seasons past, and as such here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 11 (November 16):
- Tentative game: New England @ Indianapolis
- Prospects: 3-2 v. 3-2, about the same as the remaining early-flex games. Obviously this rivalry isn’t as hot as in the Brady-Manning days, but it’s still Brady v. Luck.
- Likely protections: Bengals-Saints if anything (CBS) and 49ers-Giants or Eagles-Packers (FOX).
- Other possible games: With no unbeaten teams after just five weeks, you see a lot of mediocrity in the standings, as the early-flex games and this first tentative show. Besides Fox’s unprotected game, Lions-Cardinals is a possibility, and Texans-Browns is a dark horse.
Week 12 (November 23):
- Tentative game: Dallas @ NY Giants
- Prospects: 4-1 v. 3-2. The NFC East is hardly last year’s tire fire, and for once the Cowboys don’t look quite so mediocre as in years past.
- Likely protections: Dolphins-Broncos, Bengals-Texans, or nothing (CBS) and Cardinals-Seahawks or Lions-Patriots (FOX).
- Other possible games: Basically comes down to whatever games CBS and Fox don’t protect.
Week 13 (November 30):
- Tentative game: Denver @ Kansas City
- Prospects: 3-1 v. 2-3. Possibly the most vulnerable of the tentatives, yet still has a pretty good chance to keep its spot on its own merits.
- Likely protections: Chargers-Ravens or Patriots-Packers (CBS) and Saints-Steelers if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games, especially with Eagles-Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Browns-Bills is a dark horse, but CBS’ unprotected game is really the only good option. Doubtful that’d overcome the chance to have Peyton Manning on.
Week 14 (December 7):
- Tentative game: New England @ San Diego
- Prospects: 3-2 v. 4-1. Very strong to keep its spot.
- Likely protections: Steelers-Bengals, Bills-Broncos, or nothing (CBS) and Seahawks-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: Besides CBS’s unprotected game, Ravens-Dolphins and Colts-Browns are dark horses. None of those are particularly appealing.
Week 15 (December 14):
- Tentative game: Dallas @ Philadelphia
- Prospects: 4-1 v. 4-1 and an NFC East showdown. If form holds, this game has a mortal lock on this spot.
- Likely protections: Chargers-Broncos (CBS) and 49ers-Seahawks (FOX).
- Other possible games: Packers-Bills and Texans-Colts, both of which would require an absolute collapse by one or both teams and that still might not be enough (as many Cowboys games past have shown). Bengals-Browns and Dolphins-Patriots are dark horses.
Week 16 (December 21):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ Arizona
- Prospects: The NFL sometimes seems to put throwaway games in Week 16 and this may have seemed like one of them, but at 3-1 v. 3-1 it’s nearly on par with the previous week.
- Likely protections: Colts-Cowboys (CBS) and Lions-Bears but more likely nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Ravens-Texans is the only real option at the moment, and it hardly is one. Browns-Panthers is a dark horse.
Week 17 (December 28):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.