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 this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point 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 4:25 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; I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006 and 2011 (and yes I goofed up by not writing this post last week). 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.
- Three teams can 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, although starting this year Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. No team starts the season completely tapped out at any measure; nine teams have five primetime appearances each, but only the Texans don’t have games in the main flex period, though they don’t have any early-flex games left either. NBC appearances for all teams: CAR 2 (1 flexible), DEN 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), NE 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), ARI 2 (1 semi-flexible), GB 3 (1 flexible), MIN 1, CHI 1, DAL 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), KC 2 (1 flexible), PIT 3 (2 flexible), NYG 2 (1 flexible), IND 2 (flexible), HOU 1, SEA 3 (2 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), PHI 1 (semi-flexible), OAK 1 (semi-flexible), WAS 1 (flexible), NYJ 1 (flexible), CIN 1 (flexible). All primetime appearances for all teams: CAR 5 (1 flexible), DEN 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), NE 5 (2 flexible), ARI 4 (1 semi-flexible), GB 5 (1 flexible), MIN 4, CHI 4, DAL 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), KC 3 (1 flexible), PIT 5 (2 flexible), NYG 5 (1 flexible), IND 3 (2 flexible), HOU 5, SEA 5 (1 semi-flexible, 2 flexible), PHI 4 (1 semi-flexible), OAK 3 (1 semi-flexible), WAS 3 (1 flexible), NYJ 5 (1 flexible), CIN 4 (1 flexible), LA 2, SF 2, ATL 2, NO 2, TB 2, BUF 2, BAL 3, MIA 2, all other teams 1.
Briefly, here are the current early-season games and their prospects for being flexed out:
- Week 7: Seattle (3-1) @ Arizona (2-3). A fairly mediocre contest, but nowhere near the sort of emergency that would warrant pulling the early flex considering the protection rules. No chance of being flexed out.
- Week 8: Philadelphia (3-1) @ Dallas (4-1). The Cowboys never, ever, get flexed out in any case; when it’s a matchup with the NFC East lead potentially on the line? No chance of being flexed out.
- Week 9: Denver (4-1) @ Oakland (4-1). Two one-loss teams fighting for the AFC West lead adds up to a game that won’t see any available game overcome the tentative game bias. No chance of being flexed out.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 10 (November 13):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ New England
- Prospects: 3-1 v. 4-1, which is nearly impossible to beat.
- Likely protections: Broncos-Saints but probably nothing (CBS) and Cowboys-Steelers (FOX).
- Other possible games: Falcons-Eagles would be a strong contender against a weaker tentative (and might have been protected if the Cowboys were facing a weaker opponent), and Vikings-Skraelings finds itself lost in the shuffle. Packers-Titans is a dark horse.
Week 11 (November 20):
- Tentative game: Green Bay @ Washington
- Prospects: 3-1 v. 3-2, not quite as hard to beat as Seahawks-Patriots, but pretty strong.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Cowboys or Eagles-Seahawks (CBS) and probably Cardinals-Vikings if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Besides CBS’ unprotected game, the only other options involve teams below .500, with Bills-Bengals and Buccaneers-Chiefs being the most viable, and Titans-Colts as a very dark horse.
Week 12 (November 27):
- Tentative game: New England @ NY Jets
- Prospects: 4-1 v. 1-4. Very lopsided, but could be hard pressed to lose its spot under the circumstances.
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Broncos (CBS) and Cardinals-Falcons, Rams-Saints, Seahawks-Bucs, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games, and this year seems to have gotten unusually lucky in terms of good teams on Thanksgiving and Monday night (across those four games only the Colts and Lions have three or more losses). Bengals-Ravens, Cardinals-Falcons, and Seahawks-Bucs are the best options.
Week 13 (December 4):
- Tentative game: Carolina @ Seattle
- Prospects: 1-4 v. 3-1, with the Panthers’ struggles making this unfortunately lopsided.
- Likely protections: Texans-Packers (CBS) and Rams-Patriots, Giants-Steelers, or Eagles-Bengals (FOX).
- Other possible games: Chiefs-Falcons and Bills-Raiders are reasonably strong contenders, along with whichever game(s) are unprotected between Rams-Patriots and Giants-Steelers (I think the former is most likely). Racial Slurs-Cardinals is a dark horse.
Week 14 (December 11):
- Tentative game: Dallas @ NY Giants
- Prospects: 4-1 v. 2-3 is not great, but the Cowboys never get flexed out of SNF under any circumstances and certainly not when they’re playing this well.
- Likely protections: Steelers-Bills if anything (CBS) and Seahawks-Packers (FOX).
- Other possible games: Native Americans-Eagles is good enough I considered listing them as an option for the protection, and Falcons-Rams is a good option as well. Broncos-Titans and Texans-Colts are dark horses.
Week 15 (December 18):
- Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati
- Prospects: 4-1 v. 2-3, like Cowboys-Giants not great, and the name value of the teams doesn’t insulate this game nearly as well.
- Likely protections: Patriots-Broncos (CBS) and Eagles-Ravens (FOX).
- Other possible games: The good news for this game is that the only remaining options also involve 2-3 teams: Titans-Chiefs, Colts-Vikings, or Bucs-Cowboys, with Lions-Giants as a dark horse.
Week 17 (January 3):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.