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 10 (November 12):
- Tentative game: New England @ Denver
- Prospects: 5-2 v. 3-3. The Broncos aren’t playing as well as they might have looked to start the season, but this’ll still 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 is the best option in terms of records, while Vikings-Skraelings and Texans-Rams are a bit more lopsided.
- Analysis: Right now Vikings-Skraelings and Texans-Rams have the exact same pair of records as the tentative, and even if the Broncos lost and each of the two teams in one of those games won (and the Rams are on bye this week), it’s doubtful it would overcome the tentative game bias. At 4-2 v. 4-2, Saints-Bills isn’t much of an improvement either, especially given how the Bills aren’t a name team. 6-2 v. 3-4 or 5-3 v. 3-4 is the sort of point when you start thinking about pulling a flex, but in a season where the league is as flat as it is it’s about as good as could be hoped for; I’m not sure 5-2 v. 5-2 with less name teams, or even Vikings-Skraelings at 6-2 v. 4-3, is going to get it done. (It also doesn’t help that the Broncos play on Monday night.) I could understand if the NFL pulls the flex, but I’d still probably be pretty surprised.
- Final prediction: New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos (no change).
Week 11 (November 19):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
- Prospects: 6-1 v. 3-3, 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: If the league needed an excuse to keep a lopsided Cowboys game, the fact that Natives-Saints is the only unprotected game involving two teams at or above .500 would do it.
Week 12 (November 26):
- Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
- Prospects: 4-3 v. 5-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of, even if the Packers go into the tank without Aaron Rodgers. And the next two weeks, the Packers are on bye and hosting the Lions; they’d need to lose that game and then lose to the Bears in the last week before the decision needs to come down to put this in serious jeopardy.
- 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. In lieu of that, the league’s only options involving only teams at or above .500 are Saints-Rams, which depends on a night game at the Coliseum the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend being an option, or Dolphins-Patriots, which may or may not have been protected.
Week 13 (December 3):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
- Prospects: 6-1 v. 4-2, about as good as could be hoped for at the moment.
- Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
- Other possible games: Panthers-Saints is the best alternative at the moment, with Vikings-Falcons, Broncos-Dolphins, and Texans-Titans being dark horses.
Week 14 (December 10):
- Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
- Prospects: 3-4 v. 5-2. Starting to become concerningly lopsided and the Steelers might be running away with the division, and this rivalry doesn’t have as much fire as it used to.
- Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
- Other possible games: Did CBS leave Vikings-Panthers unprotected? If so, it’d be hard to beat. Is it possible for the Coliseum to host a Sunday night game in mid-December, after college football season is over but in the midst of USC finals, and would the NFL be okay with the Eagles having back-to-back Sunday night games? If so, that becomes an option, though if NBC were as desperate for it as one of my commenters thinks they’d have it scheduled to begin with (yes, no one thought the Rams would be this good, but still). But even without those two games, keep an eye on Seahawks-Jaguars. Would the NFL flex out of a game involving a rivalry that still has some resonance and a team with a fanbase far outside its home market for one involving a team most people are only aware of because they’re surprised they’re still in Jacksonville? Wait and see.
Week 15 (December 17):
- Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
- Prospects: 3-3 v. 3-4, 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: If one of the teams in the tentative weren’t the Cowboys, Rams-Seahawks would be another reason not to flex in Eagles-Rams the previous week, with Dolphins-Bills a bit behind and Texans-Jaguars continuing to lurk as a dark horse.
Week 17 (December 31):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.