Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 12

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):

  • Selected game: New England @ Denver.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Selected game: Philadelphia @ Dallas.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Selected game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Selected game: Philadelphia @ Seattle.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Selected game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh. Regarding the changes that were made, for many the headline is “Fox would rather have Seahawks-Jaguars in the late slot than Cowboys-Giants”, but in fact the move indicates the opposite of what it seems to, serving as a testament to how much of a draw Cowboys-Giants still is even in the early slot. Cowboys-Giants now gets to anchor an early slate where the best worse team across all the games is Tampa Bay at 4-7, only two games better than the Giants, and salvage good or at least acceptable ratings for the early slot with two name teams that can pop a rating no matter what. Meanwhile, Seahawks-Jags isn’t being moved to the late slot to be Fox’s new feature game, but to serve as the undercard to Eagles-Rams, inflating ratings in Jacksonville and the Pacific Northwest and serving as a backup if Eagles-Rams gets out of hand, and given the mediocrity of the early slate might have actually gotten better distribution had it remained early; I suspect it was only chosen as the game to move late to keep the Seahawks from having to play at 10 AM in their normal time zone (the Niners have to do the same thing, but Houston is in Central time, not on the Atlantic coast, and the Niners almost want to lose at this point). I bring all this up because it has bearing on the Week 15 flex.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 5-6 v. 5-6, but as usual it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night, and Oakland, at least, is still in playoff contention.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks would be a good choice to flex in under more ideal circumstances. Any other games would involve going to teams below .500, and Cardinals-Trumps is the only game that stays with teams at 5-6 or above.
  • Analysis: If there is an argument for the league flexing in Rams-Seahawks, it’s the fact that right now it’s pinned to the 4 PM ET timeslot on the singleheader network when the doubleheader network’s protected game will in all likelihood determine home field in the NFC. Fox’s own protected game could feature the return of Aaron Rodgers so while Rams-Seahawks would be an attractive game to show in the home markets of teams with CBS early games, it’s probably not worth diluting Packers-Panthers distribution and undermining the CBS feature game to broaden Rams-Seahawks’ reach. The NFL has stepped in to broaden the distribution of potentially under-distributed singleheader-network games (especially those otherwise pinned to 4:05) before, most notably with the “protection override” of Chiefs-Broncos a few years ago (even Saints-Rams being crossflexed to CBS this past week arguably falls in this category, though it’s also precisely the situation for which the crossflex was developed regardless of original timeslot). But the Cowboys have never been flexed out of Sunday night, even when circumstances would absolutely warrant it with any other team, and  with a game that still has playoff meaning (certainly for the Raiders), NBC would scream bloody murder at losing a Cowboys game even when swapping two potentially 5-7 teams for an 8-3 v. 7-4 divisional clash featuring the big (but lukewarm) Los Angeles market.

    Notably (especially if you want to stick to the crossflex era), the league had a somewhat similar situation in Week 12 of 2014, and kept a matchup between the top two teams in the NFC West, the Cardinals at Seahawks, 8-1 v. 6-3 at the time the decision had to be made (with the Cardinals holding the league’s best record), in the late time slot of the Fox singleheader playing second fiddle to the 7-2 Lions at the 7-2 Patriots, while keeping CBS’ late slot anchored by a much more mediocre Dolphins-Broncos contest that stood at 5-4 v. 7-2, worse than either of those Fox games. The game the league kept on NBC that time involved a Cowboys team with a much less disappointing season (the problem was lopsidedness, not overall mediocrity), their opponents the Giants were and are a bigger draw in their own right than the Raiders, and all else being equal the Rams can probably pop a bigger rating than the Cardinals, but given the league’s other history with Cowboys SNF games color me skeptical that they’ll pull the trigger now.

  • Final prediction: Dallas Cowboys @ Oakland Raiders (no change).

Week 17 (December 31):

AFC Playoff Picture
2 teams at 5-6
6-5 5-6
6-5 5-6
NFC Playoff Picture
6-5 6-5
2 teams at 5-6
  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Panthers-Falcons, Jaguars-Titans, Packers-Lions, Bills-Dolphins, Cardinals-Seahawks.