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.