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; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, 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, 2011, and last year. 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.
- New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
- 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 Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 9 (November 5):
- Tentative game: Oakland @ Miami
- Prospects: 2-4 v. 3-2. Okay, not great, but not necessarily something worth burning the first-ever early flex on either.
- Possible alternatives: With the Chiefs still maxed out on primetime appearances, expect CBS to protect Broncos-Eagles over Chiefs-Cowboys, and with their next-best available game being 3-3 v. 3-3, don’t expect them to be much of a factor for losing a game. For Fox, Falcons-Panthers (3-2 v. 4-2) and Washington-Seahawks (3-2 v. 3-2) are their best games.
- Analysis: Let’s say both teams in the tentative lose to go to 2-5 v. 3-3, while all four of the potential Fox games win to create two games at 4-2 v. 5-2 and 4-2 v. 4-2. Does the NFL pull the early flex on the game Fox doesn’t protect? It’s certainly tempting, assuming there aren’t further restrictions than are already known to keep the NFL from using early flexes on any but the most catastrophically bad tentatives.
Week 10 (November 12):
- Tentative game: New England @ Denver
- Prospects: 4-2 v. 3-2, attractive enough to be difficult to beat.
- Likely protections: Steelers-Colts if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX). (Texans-Rams likely does not need to be protected, to avoid trying to host a night game at the LA Coliseum, though this isn’t really known for certain; this also affects other Rams home games below.)
- Other possible games: Saints-Bills and Vikings-Skraelings are the best options, while Texans-Rams lurks a step or two behind.
Week 11 (November 19):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
- Prospects: 5-1 v. 2-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Natives-Saints is the only game between two teams above .500, with Cardinals-Texans pitting two teams at that mark.
Week 12 (November 26):
- Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
- Prospects: 4-2 v. 4-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of, even if the Packers go into the tank without Aaron Rodgers.
- Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d at least be under consideration for a move to Sunday night. Bucs-Falcons is also a game Fox might have protected if I was wrong about their protection, though it’s a bit iffier. Saints-Rams would be an option if a night game at the Coliseum was an option. That leaves only games involving teams at .500 (Panthers-Jets, Jaguars-Cardinals) unless CBS protected Broncos-Raiders to leave Dolphins-Patriots open.
Week 13 (December 3):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
- Prospects: 5-1 v. 3-2, and if the Seahawks play more like the Seahawks of old from now on it’ll be very difficult to beat.
- Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
- Other possible games: Vikings-Falcons, Panthers-Saints, and Broncos-Dolphins are the best options, with Rams-Cardinals a viable dark horse. Chiefs-Jets would at least be a dark horse if the Chiefs weren’t still maxed out and it weren’t a skosh lopsided. Lions-Ravens and Texans-Titans pit two 3-3 teams.
Week 14 (December 10):
- Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
- Prospects: 3-3 v. 4-2 and for the AFC North lead if it were played today.
- Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
- Other possible games: Vikings-Panthers is a pretty strong potential matchup if CBS left it unprotected; only Eagles-Rams could really come on par with it, but neither is likely to overcome the tentative game bias at this point even if Coliseum night games were an option. Seahawks-Jaguars, Jets-Broncos, and Titans-Cardinals are dark horses.
Week 15 (December 17):
- Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
- Prospects: 2-3 v. 2-4, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
- Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
- Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks is the strongest game on the slate, with Dolphins-Bills a bit behind and Jets-Saints and Cardinals-Trumps dark horses. Texans-Jaguars is a bit further back than that as a battle of 3-3 teams, but would be for the AFC South lead if played today.
Week 17 (December 31):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.