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; nine teams have five primetime appearances each, but only the Giants, Cowboys, Packers, and Eagles don’t have games in the main flex period, and of those only the Giants don’t have games in the early flex period. NBC appearances for all teams: PIT 3 (2 flexible), NE 3 (1 flexible), NYG 2, DAL 3 (1 semi-flexible), SEA 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), GB 3 (1 semi-flexible), DEN 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), DET 1, NO 1, SF 2 (1 flexible), IND 2 (1 flexible), PHI 2 (semi-flexible), CAR 1 (semi-flexible), ARI 1 (semi-flexible), KC 1 (flexible), SD 1 (flexible), CHI 1, BAL 2 (flexible), CIN 1 (flexible). All primetime appearances for all teams: PIT 5 (2 flexible), NE 5 (1 flexible), NYG 5, DAL 5 (1 semi-flexible), SEA 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), GB 5 (1 semi-flexible), DEN 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), DET 4, NO 3, SF 4 (1 flexible), IND 5 (1 flexible), PHI 5 (2 semi-flexible), CAR 2 (1 semi-flexible), ARI 3 (1 semi-flexible), KC 3 (1 flexible), SD 4 (1 flexible), CHI 2, BAL 5 (2 flexible), CIN 4 (1 flexible), ATL 2, MIN 2, NYJ 3, HOU 2, BUF 2, CLE 2, WAS 3, MIA 2, all other teams 1.
Briefly, here are the current early-season games and their prospects for being flexed out:
- Week 7: Philadelphia (2-3) @ Carolina (4-0). Potentially a bit lopsided, but an undefeated team taking on a big market. CBS likely protects Jets-Patriots, while Fox protects Cowboys-Giants, leaving you with only games involving 2-3 teams taking on teams at or below .500. No chance of being flexed out.
- Week 8: Green Bay (5-0) @ Denver (5-0). Aaron Rodgers v. Peyton Manning is one thing, but when both teams are undefeated to boot? No chance of being flexed out.
- Week 9: Philadelphia (2-3) @ Dallas (2-3). Two below-500 teams, but the apocalypse would need to hit before the Cowboys got flexed out of SNF.
- Week 10: Arizona (4-1) @ Seattle (2-3). Another clash of a four-win team against a team below .500.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 11 (November 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ San Diego
- Prospects: 1-4 v. 2-3, in pretty bad shape.
- Likely protections: Bengals-Cardinals or Colts-Falcons (CBS) and Packers-Vikings if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Pretty much just CBS’ unprotected game; even Packers-Vikings is too lopsided to be much of an option if it’s unprotected. Because a full half of the teams above .500 are unbeaten and there are so many surprises above .500 (unbeaten or no), I’m going to be looking at the 2-3 teams, and Bucs-Eagles could be an option if both teams rally from their 2-3 starts. Washington-Panthers is probably too lopsided for even that to work for it.
Week 12 (November 29):
- Tentative game: New England @ Denver
- Prospects: Not a single loss between them, and possibly the last Brady-Manning showdown. No chance to lose its spot.
- Likely protections: Giants-Washington if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games (I think it’s a mortal lock this is CBS’ unprotected week). I doubt it’s a coincidence the game you think is least likely to be flexed coming into the season is the one slated for this week. Vikings-Falcons is a dark horse, while Bucs-Colts, Rams-Bengals, and Steelers-Seahawks wait in the wings, but there really is no good option this week, and no reason to look for one.
Week 13 (December 6):
- Tentative game: Indianapolis @ Pittsburgh
- Prospects: 3-2 v. 3-2, a respectable but not worldbeating game, with marquee quarterbacks but small markets.
- Likely protections: Jets-Giants (CBS) and Eagles-Patriots (FOX).
- Other possible games: Only other options involve teams below .500: Bengals-Browns, Broncos-Chargers, and Falcons-Bucs both pit unbeaten teams against 2-3 teams, Cardinals-Rams isn’t much better, and Seahawks-Vikings just pits two teams at 2-3 v. 2-2. This game will keep its spot if records hold.
Week 14 (December 13):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ Baltimore
- Prospects: 2-3 v. 1-4, same as Chiefs-Chargers earlier. Not looking good.
- Likely protections: Steelers-Bengals (CBS) and Cowboys-Packers or Falcons-Panthers (FOX).
- Other possible games: Either of Fox’s possible protected games would be very attractive, with at least one team unbeaten at the moment, and there may not really be any other option. Raiders-Broncos is another unbeaten v. 2-3 game, and Bills-Eagles and Washington-Bears are decidedly iffy.
Week 15 (December 20):
- Tentative game: Cincinnati @ San Francisco
- Prospects: 5-0 v. 1-4. Massively lopsided.
- Likely protections: Broncos-Steelers (CBS) and Panthers-Giants or Bears-Vikings (FOX).
- Other possible games: If Bears-Vikings is protected Panthers-Giants is a pretty good option, which is good because any other options would require 2-3 teams to rally. Keep an eye on Cardinals-Eagles, Bills-Washington, Browns-Seahawks, and Packers-Raiders.
Week 16 (December 27):
- Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Baltimore
- Prospects: 3-2 v. 1-4. One of the NFL’s better rivalries, but not in the best shape right now.
- Likely protections: Patriots-Jets (CBS) and Packers-Cardinals or Panthers-Falcons (FOX).
- Other possible games: As with the week with the first Panthers-Falcons matchup, Fox’s unprotected game is far and away ahead of any other contenders; Giants-Vikings is a very distant second. Keep an eye on Cowboys-Bills, Bears-Bucs, and Rams-Seahawks.
Week 17 (January 3):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.