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 (6-8)
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THE WINGS (6-7)
|510-4||ALL OTHER TEAMS
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Panthers-Falcons, Bills-Dolphins, Jaguars-Titans, and near as I can tell, that’s it.
- Jaguars-Titans will be picked if: The Jaguars lose AND the Titans win. The good news is that the Titans might have to win just to make the playoffs; the bad news is that the Jags have already clinched a playoff spot and this game needs another Niners upset and the Titans to upset the Rams to happen at all. For NBC, the good news is they might not be stuck with this game; the bad news is that they lose this game as a potential fallback option. The Jags could have a shot at a first-round bye with a win, and the Titans could be fighting for their playoff lives with a loss, but there’s no way to guarantee either team would have something to play for by the time Sunday night comes around.
- Bills-Dolphins will be picked if: The Bills lose AND the Ravens lose AND the Chargers lose AND the Dolphins win AND the Bills have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Ravens AND the Jags-Titans scenario doesn’t happen. This would create a situation where the Dolphins could potentially make the playoffs with a win, but more importantly, the tiebreaker they’d have over the Bills would eliminate them from the playoffs, making this close to a win-and-in, lose-and-out game for the Bills. However, the league would probably prefer to maximize what the Dolphins have to play for, so might only pick this game if the Dolphins are completely out of the playoffs win or lose.
- Panthers-Falcons might be picked if: The Falcons beat the Saints AND the Panthers win AND neither of the other scenarios happen. As mentioned last week, the Peach Bowl will be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 12:30 the following day, making it unlikely the game even can be moved even to the late afternoon unless it’s moved to, say, the Georgia Tech campus (as is the turnaround time is similar to what the Big 12 title game would have faced if it was played the day after Indians-Cowboys the week after Thanksgiving, and that wound up getting it played early Saturday afternoon instead). Theoretically they can pull it off if they need to – there were multiple times this year that the Coliseum hosted a USC game on Saturday and a 1:05 or 1:25 PM local-time Rams game on Sunday, and I don’t know if a grass field is harder or easier to turn around than FieldTurf – but it’s not likely to make anyone happy even before considering that’s going from college to an NFL game, not the other way around and not when dealing with a major bowl game, which may have bigger logistical issues to deal with. Still, the fact I haven’t seen any actual reporting about the ability or lack thereof to play Panthers-Falcons later in the day might make me cautiously optimistic, though of course that also means there’s nothing saying it is possible like there was for Eagles-Rams.
Even if Panthers-Falcons can be moved to a later time slot, it’s still not guaranteed to happen and in fact the Saints are favored over the Falcons. That opens up the very real possibility that the NFL has no game that, by their usual standards, is suitable for the Sunday night Week 17 game – just about every game featuring a playoff team or contender will need to be played before or simultaneously with another game to ensure each team has as much to play for as possible, or at least to minimize the possibility of playoff positioning being determined by a team with nothing to play for, compounded by the potential of ratings going in the tank on New Year’s Eve. That could be instructive in terms of what the league prioritizes in such a situation. Here are some games to look for, and what scenarios might favor them, in very rough order of preference:
- Cowboys-Eagles could be picked if: The Cowboys lose OR the Eagles win OR the Vikings lose. This at least eliminates the scenario where the Cowboys could make the playoffs by beating an Eagles team resting their starters, when the Eagles would have played their starters if they were playing before or simultaneously with the Vikings, or conversely where the Eagles can win home field by beating a Cowboys team eliminated from the playoffs, when the Cowboys would still be alive for the playoffs if they were playing before or simultaneously with the other NFC wild card contenders. This also assumes there’s no scenario where the outcome of this game affects tiebreakers but the Cowboys can’t actually win a tiebreaker. The theory for many of these is that, if all else fails, it’s okay for one team not to have anything to play for they otherwise would have as long as that doesn’t affect any races, especially if we’re just sacrificing a game to tank in the ratings against New Year’s Eve parties. One problem with this is that Raiders-Eagles is the Monday night game, which could hamstring the league’s ability to announce the game in a timely fashion and finalize the Week 17 schedule.
- Jets-Patriots could be picked if: The Patriots and Steelers either both win or both lose. This would sort of create a cheat where the league assumes the Steelers will beat the lowly Browns and so forces the Patriots to defend their #1 seed. (Steelers-Texans is being played on Christmas on NBC, so this could run into much the same issue as Raiders-Eagles, but it’s not as acute and the game could still be announced on NBC itself as has been a semi-tradition.) If the Patriots win, Steelers lose, but the Jaguars win, the Patriots could still have to defend their #1 seed if the Jaguars go on to beat the Titans. One big problem with this is that New York is the home of what amounts to America’s New Year’s celebration; do we really want to make New Yorkers choose whether or not to watch the hapless Jets as the clock counts down to midnight?
- Browns-Steelers could be picked if: The Browns lose. This is all about the trainwreck potential of the Browns going 0-16, and while the Steelers could be playing for playoff positioning, if their seed ends up getting locked in earlier in the day it’s fine as long as no one else is counting on them to win or lose. (I actually considered putting this game in the main section but decided against it because of the question of what the Steelers would have to play for.)
- Packers-Lions could be picked if: The Lions win AND aren’t eliminated from the playoffs or face a scenario where their game determines who gets in without any chance of it being them. This is mostly about the Packers’ name value and relative quality even without Aaron Rodgers.
- Saints-Bucs could be picked if: The Saints and Panthers both lose. If the Saints have already clinched the division, but are eliminated from a first-round bye, but can still affect whether they get the 3 or 4 seed, it’s not clear they’d care about that or even which wild card team they’d rather face.
- Raiders-Chargers could be picked if: The Raiders lose OR the Titans win. If the Raiders enter Week 17 still in the playoff hunt, their playoff hopes need to still be alive when the game kicks off since it’ll still affect the Chargers’ playoff hopes, and with losses to the Bills and Ravens already in the bag that’s pretty likely.
- Chiefs-Broncos could be picked if: The Chiefs lose AND the Chargers win. Two teams with passionate enough fanbases they’ll watch even if the Broncos are out of the playoffs and the Chiefs have a chance to have already clinched the division.
- If all else fails, put Bengals-Ravens on if the Ravens are still alive and can’t affect who gets in without it being them. Or Bears-Vikings; the Bears suck but they’re still a big-market team and maybe Minnesota has a chance to steal the #1 seed. Or throw on two non-playoff teams in Texans-Colts or Trumps-Giants if you’d rather have that than subject America to the Bears (normally Trumps-Giants is preferable but having a game at MetLife Stadium that could end less than an hour before or even after midnight is even less palatable than having the Jets play that late).