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 17 (December 31):
|WILD CARD||WAITING IN
THE WINGS (5-8)
|WILD CARD||WAITING IN
THE WINGS (6-7)
|2 tied at 7-6||7-6|
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Panthers-Falcons, Bengals-Ravens, Jaguars-Titans, Saints-Bucs, Packers-Lions, Bills-Dolphins, Cowboys-Eagles, Raiders-Chargers, Chiefs-Broncos, Cardinals-Seahawks. Some of these percentage chances are going to come off as high, but I couldn’t bring myself to put the percentage chances of Jags-Titans above 40 percent, yet all the other games either require a lot of things to break in their favor, are of a type the NFL would probably prefer to avoid (especially if Jags-Titans is an option), or in the case of Panthers-Falcons, have logistical issues that could completely preclude a move to Sunday night even if things break their way. (It didn’t help I actually miscalculated the numbers at first and had everything add up to 110 percent, with Jags-Titans reluctantly bumped up to 50.)
- Chances of Jaguars-Titans: 40 percent. NBC would absolutely take any other game if it met the standard for being flexed into Sunday night, especially with it being very likely the loser of this game still gets a wild card spot, but nothing is a sure thing and unless the Titans fall off the face of the earth (or at least just lose one more game than the Jags over the next two), or win their next two while the Jaguars lose their next two, this has a very good chance to at least be a fallback option, and the league might actually prefer it to some of the options below.
- Chances of Raiders-Chargers: 15 percent. There are two scenarios where this game becomes a Sunday night possibility: either the Chiefs lose enough that the winner of this game wins the division, or it becomes a win-and-in, lose-and-out game for the wild card. On the first front, the Chiefs beat the Chargers the first time they met (the second time is this weekend) and split with the Raiders. If the Chargers win this weekend the Chiefs will enter the last week with a 3-2 division record, same as the Chargers, while the Raiders enter at 2-3 and having already lost the first game to the Chargers; in that scenario the Chargers might then have to lose to the Jets just so the tiebreaker between the teams isn’t decided by strength of victory, and that would still probably require a Chiefs loss to the Dolphins. On the wild-card front, the Raiders have losses to both the Bills and Ravens while the Chargers beat the Bills, but the teams are all currently tied for the last wild-card spot so it wouldn’t take much slippage by the Bills and Ravens to make this game for the wild card.
- Chances of Packers-Lions: 10 percent. This is the game NBC would pick every day of the week, but the problem is that both teams are a game out of the playoffs and have to navigate the traffic of the NFC South teams and the Seahawks, not to mention the Cowboys. The Packers have wins over Seattle and Dallas but lost to the Falcons; they play the Panthers this week in what increasingly sounds like Aaron Rodgers’ return. The Lions lost to both NFC South teams but won the first game over the Packers.
- Chances of Chiefs-Broncos: 10 percent. For reasons described here, if the Chiefs and Chargers split their next two (the winner of that game losing the next and vice versa) while the Raiders win both, this game would decide whether or not the Chiefs win the division regardless of the result of the other game. Probably the Chiefs would need to lose their next two for Raiders-Chargers to be a division title game.
- Chances of Panthers-Falcons: 5 percent. Same deal as Raiders-Chargers, essentially, except that the Saints look much stronger than the Chiefs at the moment (and at the least, their sweep of the Panthers means the Panthers needs to be at least a game ahead of them to qualify as a division title game) and both teams, especially the Panthers, would need to move back considerably for only one of them to make the playoffs. (In any case, as one of my commenters points out, moving this game to Sunday night would leave the stadium only about 13 hours of overnight turnaround for the Peach Bowl the next day, making even a move to the late afternoon iffy.)
- Chances of Bengals-Ravens: 5 percent. The Ravens would hold tiebreakers over both the Raiders and Chargers, so if all three go into the final week tied this might be the choice if the Chiefs have already clinched the AFC West.
- Chances of Bills-Dolphins: 5 percent. These two teams play two of the last three weeks against one another. If the Dolphins win the first one this game’s chances likely depend on the rest of the AFC regressing enough that this is a winner-in game; if the Bills win the game’s chances depend on this being win-and-in, lose-and-out for the Bills under similar circumstances to Chiefs-Broncos and Bengals-Ravens (though if the Bills proceeded to lose out and the Dolphins won out the Dolphins would still win the divisional tiebreaker). But that’s not as clear as with the Ravens or Chiefs; the only West team the Bills have played was a loss to the Chargers, while the Raiders have played two more conference games than the Bills and lost both.
- Chances of Cardinals-Seahawks: 5 percent. If the teams involved retain their current relative positions, the Seahawks would lose tiebreakers to the Packers or Lions with a loss. The Cardinals have an outside shot of making the playoffs themselves, but that probably can’t be assured to be on the line entering Week 17.
- Chances of Saints-Bucs: 3 percent. Technically this game is to Panthers-Falcons what Chiefs-Broncos is to Raiders-Chargers, but the circumstances in which it would be an option aren’t actually directly covered by that post. The Saints swept the Panthers so they would need to be tied with the Panthers. But the Falcons just won the first game between them so the Saints would need to win the second to even have a chance to win the tiebreaker with them, meaning the Saints would need to lose this week and the Falcons would need to win to get back to the two teams being even a game apart entering Week 17. Supposing that happened and the Falcons and Bucs won Week 17, we’d have a three-way tie the Saints would win by virtue of sweeping the Panthers while the Falcons split with both teams. But could this game still be an option if the Saints and Panthers were tied while the Falcons were a game back after sweeping the Saints? The three-way tie then would win the division for the Falcons by virtue of a 3-1 head-to-head record to the Saints’ 2-2 and the Panthers’ 1-3. Even then a lot is likely to depend on what other games are available and what the wild card situation is, and the NFL would likely prefer to avoid this sort of situation in favor of one where both teams have something to play for.
- Chances of Cowboys-Eagles: 2 percent. Cowboys or no Cowboys, for this to happen the Cowboys would need to win out, the Packers and Lions would need to both split, the Falcons would need to lose out, and none of the other scenarios can happen, because this game has two things going against it: it would put both games of a division rivalry on NBC (the second time this would have happened with the NFC East) and it would involve a team likely to be resting up for the playoffs, which isn’t the case for any of the other “only matters for one team” games. (Even if the Eagles enter Week 17 not yet having clinched their seed, there’s no way to guarantee their seed would still be undetermined heading into Sunday night. It would arguably be better if they had clinched their seed because then they have nothing to play for anyway.)