Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 5

Since it started in its current format as the NFL’s main primetime package in 2006, the defining feature of NBC’s Sunday Night Football has been the use of flexible scheduling to ensure the best matchups and showcase the best teams as the season goes along. Well, that’s the theory, anyway; the reality has not always lived up to the initial hype and has at times seemed downright mystifying. Regardless, I’m here to help you figure out what you can and can’t expect to see on Sunday nights on NBC.

A full explanation of all the factors that go into flexible scheduling decisions can be found on my NFL Flexible Scheduling Primer, but here’s the Cliffs Notes version with all the important points you need to know:

  • The season can be broken down into three different periods (four if you count the first four weeks where flexible scheduling does not apply at all) for flexible scheduling purposes, each with similar yet different rules governing them: the early flex period, from weeks 5 to 10; the main flex period, from weeks 11 to 16; and week 17. In years where Christmas forces either the Sunday afternoon slate or the Sunday night game to Saturday in Week 16, flex scheduling does not apply that week, and the main flex period begins week 10.
  • In all cases, only games scheduled for Sunday may be moved to Sunday night. Thursday and Monday night games, as well as late-season Saturday games, are not affected by Sunday night flexible scheduling (discounting the “flexible scheduling” applied to Saturday of Week 16 this year – see below).
  • During the early and main flex periods, one game is “tentatively” scheduled for Sunday night and listed with the Sunday night start time of 8:20 PM ET. This game will usually remain at that start time and air on NBC, but may be flexed out for another game and moved to 1, 4:05, or 4:25 PM ET on Fox or CBS, no less than 12 days in advance of the game.
  • No more than two games can be flexed to Sunday night over the course of the early flex period. If the NFL wishes to flex out a game in the early flex period twelve days in advance, CBS and Fox may elect to protect one game each from being moved to Sunday night. This is generally an emergency valve in situations where the value of the tentative game has plummeted since the schedule was announced, namely in cases of injury to a key star player.
  • CBS and Fox may also each protect games in five out of six weeks of the main flex period, but all of those protections must be submitted after week 5, week 4 in years where the main flex period begins week 10 (so it is always six weeks before the start of the main flex period).
  • No team may appear more than six times across the league’s three primetime packages on NBC, ESPN, and Fox/NFL Network, and only three teams are allowed to appear that often, with everyone else getting five. In addition, no team may appear more than four times on NBC. All teams’ number of appearances heading into this season may be seen here.
  • According to the league’s official page, teams are notified when “they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.” However, they rarely make this known to the fans, and the list of each network’s protections has never officially been made public. It used to leak fairly regularly, but has not leaked since 2014.
  • In all cases, the NFL is the ultimate arbiter of the schedule and consults with CBS, Fox, and NBC before moving any games to prime time. If the NFL does elect to flex out the Sunday night game, the network whose game is flexed in receives the former tentative game, regardless of which network would “normally” air it under the “CBS=AFC, Fox=NFC” rules, keeping each network’s total number of games constant. At the same time, the NFL may also move games between 1 PM ET and 4:05/4:25 PM ET. However, this feature focuses primarily if not entirely on Sunday night flexible scheduling.
  • In Week 17, the entire schedule is set on only six days notice, ensuring that NBC gets a game with playoff implications, generally a game where the winner is the division champion. In theory, NBC may also show an intra-division game for a wild card spot, or a game where only one team wins the division with a win but doesn’t win the division with a loss, but such situations are rare and NBC has never shown them. If no game is guaranteed to have maximum playoff implications before Sunday night in this fashion, the league has been known not to schedule a Sunday night game at all. To ensure maximum flexibility, no protections or appearance limits apply to Week 17. The NFL also arranges the rest of the schedule such that no team playing at 4:25 PM ET (there are no 4:05 games Week 17) could have their playoff fate decided by the outcome of the 1 PM ET games, which usually means most if not all of the games with playoff implications outside Sunday night are played at 4:25 PM ET.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 7 (October 21):

  • Selected game: Cincinnati @ Kansas City. I might have picked that game if it were the main flex period and we had a larger sample size to establish that the Bengals in particular are for real and if we could establish the existence of any stars not named Patrick Mahomes (and A. J. Green I guess). More concerning to me is that pretty much everyone who wasn’t getting their information from me seemed to think the Eagles were counted for only five primetime appearances, with their London game on NFL Network not counting (the folks at the 506sports forums didn’t seem to even consider otherwise until I brought it up), which… I don’t know that I actually ever saw anything indicating London games on NFL Network counted towards appearance limits, but it would seem to fly in the face of everything else known about what does and doesn’t count towards appearance limits and why those limits exist to begin with. I was even linked to an April piece by a Packers writer indicating that it’s an actual rule that no team may be scheduled for the full six games before the season starts, which clearly isn’t the case (anymore) no matter what as neither the Chiefs or Steelers last year played in London and all of the Chiefs’ games were true primetime games. In any case I didn’t see anything from a truly infallible source, and the notion that the Eagles weren’t maxed out was always important primarily for the argument that Saints-Ravens would be flexed in, and not only did that not happen but Saints-Ravens remains in 4:05 purgatory and CBS is no longer sending Cowboys-Indians to a full national audience but is regionalizing it with Rams-Niners, when Rams-Niners at 4:05 would probably make more sense for both networks, so I’m hardly convinced the Eagles really aren’t maxed out, but feel free to add an asterisk and mentally subtract one from the Eagles and Jaguars’ primetime totals if you wish.

Week 11 (November 18):

  • Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Jacksonville
  • Prospects: 2-2-1 v. 3-2. Somewhat mediocre, but the Jags are tied for the division lead again and the Steelers are always good to pop a rating.
  • Likely protections: Bengals-Ravens if anything (CBS) and Vikings-Bears or Eagles-Saints (more likely the former even if Fox needs to protect Eagles games) (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Only options involve teams below .500: Panthers-Lions, Texans-Indians, Broncos-Chargers.

Week 12 (November 25):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Minnesota
  • Prospects: A battle of 2-2-1 teams a game back of the division, and one of the NFL’s more heated rivalries.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Jets if anything (CBS) and Seahawks-Panthers if anything (with an off chance of Giants-Eagles) (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games. Browns-Bengals is the only matchup not involving teams below .500 (even including the protected games). Jaguars-Bills and Steelers-Broncos are dark horses.

Week 13 (December 2):

  • Tentative game: San Francisco @ Seattle
  • Prospects: We just saw how much value the Niners still have without Garoppalo, and the Seahawks are hanging out below .500. Little to no chance of keeping its spot.
  • Likely protections: Probably Chargers-Steelers (CBS) and Vikings-Patriots (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Unfortunately for the league and NBC, right now Panthers-Bucs is the only unprotected game involving only teams at or above .500. For now, keep an eye on Bills-Dolphins, Jets-Titans, Broncos-Bengals, and Rams-Lions.

Week 14 (December 9):

  • Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Oakland
  • Prospects: The return of Jon Gruden to the coaching ranks has not exactly gone as planned, and the Steelers have gotten off to a mediocre start as well.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Dolphins (CBS) and Rams-Bears (FOX) (if Fox needs to protect Eagles games Eagles-Cowboys might be likeliest).
  • Other possible games: Better options this week may put Steelers-Raiders in worse shape than Niners-Seahawks, although they’re hampered by the Bengals-Chiefs flex maxing the Chiefs out on primetime appearances (Ravens-Chiefs would have been a protection candidate otherwise, though not necessarily topping Pats-Dolphins). Still, right now Bengals-Chargers is the only unprotected game in the entire main flex period where both teams are above (not at) .500 – unless Fox protects Eagles-Cowboys and makes Rams-Bears available. Saints-Bucs and Panthers-Browns both pit .500 teams against one-loss NFC South teams.

Week 15 (December 16):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
  • Prospects: If I had put this up before the Thursday night game it would have been 2-3 v. 5-0, a skosh lopsided but an NFC East team will always bring enough name value to overcome a mediocre start. Now the Eagles are 3-3 and lead the division, making this look all the stronger.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and Packers-Bears (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Bucs-Ravens, Dolphins-Vikings, and Hunters-Jaguars all pit teams at .500 against teams above that mark.

Week 16 (December 23):

  • Tentative game: Kansas City @ Seattle
  • Prospects: Same pair of records as Eagles-Rams had before Thursday night, but the Seahawks don’t have the name value to make up for their record, aren’t in a division where 2-3 is good enough to contend for the division lead, and might be worse than their record at the moment. Meanwhile, of the two unbeatens one is in a big market and one is in a small one. Can you guess which is which?
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Saints (CBS) and probably nothing, but if something, Bucs-Cowboys or Vikings-Lions (FOX).
  • Other possible games: I’m assuming CBS and Fox can’t protect the four games singled out for a potential move to Saturday after Week 8. Jaguars-Dolphins, Original Americans-Titans, and Ravens-Chargers are all at least somewhat intriguing from that group, with the latter two, along with Bengals-Browns, being the only games pitting only teams at or above .500. Besides Jaguars-Dolphins, Packers-Jets, Bills-Patriots, the possible Fox protections, and if the Eagles aren’t maxed out, Texans-Eagles are all dark horses involving 2-3 teams.

Week 17 (December 30):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

7 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 5

  1. Reposting what I wrote in a prior comment here (with some updates) since it more applies to this post than the one I replied to originally:

    Week 11: Steelers still a big national draw and there will I think be a ton of pressure from elected officials in North Florida to make sure Steelers-Jaguars remains on SNF (one of just two prime time appearances for the Jags I believe), not to mention this is a playoff rematch from last year.

    Week 12: Don’t see Packers-Vikings being moved out as the rest of the Sunday games are very weak.

    Week 13: Good chance both the 49ers and Seahawks are out of contention by the time decisions have to be made. I could see that game replaced by Broncos-Bengals (which may or may not be protected by CBS), which could have serious playoff implications by then. With the Broncos faltering, this is where CBS might protect Chargers-Steelers only to have the NFL override the protection and move the game anyway to SNF as partial payback for there being no Sunday night game in Week 17 last year.

    Week 14: Two teams in Steelers-Raiders with name value, but both could easily be out of playoff contention by then. I could easily see Rams-Bears be moved to SNF, especially with the Bears defense being what it is. Another possibility is the second Eagles-Cowboys game moves to SNF with Rams-Bears becoming the main 4:25 PM ET game on FOX (if Rams-Bears is protected), though Falcons-Packers could also be moved to SNF if the Falcons get their act together. Again, even if FOX does protect Rams-Bears, the NFL could hit FOX with a “protection override” and move Rams-Bears anyway, again as a partial payback to NBC for no Sunday night game in Week 17 last year.

    Week 15: We know CBS will protect Steelers-Pats to 4:25, though if Eagles-Rams faltered, the NFL could make clear to CBS they owe NBC for no SNF game in Week 17 last year and this would be the payback for that. I do suspect Eagles-Rams will be at least meaningful for the NFC East, keeping it in place.

    Week 16: The way the Seahawks are faltering, I could see Chiefs-Seahawks moved out. It would be anyone’s guess as to what replaces it, but right now, assuming Steelers-Saints is protected by CBS, Ravens-Chargers or Jaguars-Dolphins if either have playoff ramifications would be the favorite to take the slot.

    One other thing the NFL should have done with Week 16 would have been to have Monday Night Football start an hour earlier than usual with a 7:15 PM ET kickoff as it is Christmas Eve.

    Week 17: Too early to tell. As I noted last year, the NFL should do away with the 1:00/4:25 PM ET scheduling and instead have the last week where ALL games air between ALL of the NFL’s broadcast partners (including using DT-2/3/4 channels where needed) with ALL games in one conference kicking off at 3:00 PM Eastern Time and in the other conference at 7:00 PM Eastern Time. Sure, some locales might object to a 7:00 PM kickoff at the end of December, but this would eliminate the need for flexing the last week. As I would distribute Week 17:

    #1 Game in each time slot airs on NBC.
    #2-3 Games in each time slot air between FOX and CBS.
    #4 Game in each time slot airs on ABC.
    #5 Game in each time slot airs on ESPN (also LivWell, the DT-2 channel for ABC stations).
    #6 Game in each time slot airs on NFL Network (also Movies or BUZZR, DT-2/4 for FOX).

    #7-8 Games in each time slot air between DECADES (DT-2 Channel for CBS) and Movies or BUZZR (DT-2/4 Channel for FOX). Such games also air on FS1 (FOX Game) and most likely SPIKE TV (CBS game as that is owned by Viacom, former parent of CBS).

    That’s how I would handle Week 17, which I would actually make into a new Week 18 with all teams getting a second bye week tied to mid-week games. As I have also noted before, to accommodate such I would re-do the schedule at the beginning of the year as follows:

    Week 1: All games are mid-week as that weekend is Labor Day Weekend. Opening game would be Tuesday night before Labor Day on NBC with CBS on Wednesday and FOX on Thursday night getting doubleheaders that would start at 7:10 PM (early game) and 10:35 PM ET (late game). ESPN would have no game in Week 1.

    Week 2: ESPN gets their opening doubleheader on the Wednesday after Labor Day while NBC gets a Thursday Night game and both networks also get their regular Sunday and Monday Night games.

    Week 3: FOX gets its first Thursday Night Game of the year between teams that played on Wednesday or Thursday in Week 2. This also starts the bye weeks for teams playing a Thursday game the following week.

    Then everything is as it would be otherwise.

  2. I think Week 13 (SF@Sea) is already a goner and my “seven weeks out” guess is that Bal@Atl will be the choice here. Weeks 11 (Pit@Jax) and especially Week 14 (Pit@Oak) look iffy and may get the ax. I’m not overly concerned about any other weeks YET.

  3. Jesse:

    As said, I don’t see PIT-JAX getting the ax. There will be too much political pressure from elected officials in Florida to make sure that game stays in place since that decision has to be made on Election Day.

  4. I’d say it is worth keeping an eye on. One other thing from above. I picked Bal@Atl for week 13 not realizing that Atl was around .500 not 1-4. That said, and just cuz I am stubborn, I will stick with my pick.

  5. As Walt said, feels right now like the NFL will strongarm Chargers-Steelers into Sunday night in Week 13 over CBS’s protection, as that’s the only game (other than MIN-NE, which is going to stay at 4:25) that looks likely to be compelling on a national level. Too early to say if Weeks 14 and/or 16 will have flexes, though I could see Rams-Bears get flexed in Week 14 to make up for the Rams losing their SNF game this upcoming week.

  6. We could see the league put in one or two protection overrides, though that’s too unpredictable to predict. I really don’t think Pats-Steelers is going to be one of them though. In general I don’t think the league would override a protection of a game slated to be the feature game on the doubleheader network, probably sticking to singleheaders.

    I’m going to put on my Walt Gekko hat here, but I saw some discussion on the 506 a while back that CBS needs a Falcons home game they can send their A team to as a “dry run” for the Super Bowl in that stadium, and their game against the Bengals got Gumbel/Green, not Nantz/Romo. Barring any crossflexes, Ravens-Falcons would seem to be singled out as the lead game of the CBS singleheader that week no matter what, and I might have named it as a likely protection candidate if the Falcons had gotten off to a better start. If the league overrides a Chargers-Steelers protection, that would be part of the reason why: because it wouldn’t get a better team than Eagle/Fouts, and possibly limited distribution even by singleheader standards, staying on CBS.

    Speaking of Walt, I would have expected you to tread more lightly on the start of college football season. You’re not scheduling games on Saturday, but you are scheduling games on a Thursday where there tends to be a lot of games on as the first actual day of college football.

    New flex schedule watch post should hopefully be coming within the next 16 hours.

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