Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 7

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 11 (November 18):

  • Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Jacksonville
  • Prospects: 3-2-1 v. 3-4. Somewhat mediocre, but the Jags are only a game back of the division lead 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: Texans-Indians is a battle of four-win, over-.500 teams, but at 4-3 v. 4-2 might not be enough to overcome the tentative game bias. Panthers-Lions is next best with the Lions at 3-3. Broncos-Chargers and, if the Eagles aren’t maxed out, Eagles-Saints are dark horses.

Week 12 (November 25):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Minnesota
  • Prospects: 3-2-1 v. 4-2-1, the top two teams in the division at the moment, and one of the NFL’s more heated rivalries. Hard to see it losing its spot, especially given the spot on the calendar and the rest of the weekend slate.
  • 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; besides the tentative Seahawks-Panthers is the only other Sunday game, protected or no, without a sub-.500 team (and Bears-Lions, a battle of 3-3 teams, the only other game on the entire weekend that can say that). Steelers-Broncos would be the best alternative available at the moment.

Week 13 (December 2):

  • Tentative game: San Francisco @ Seattle
  • Prospects: The Niners were victims of our first-ever early flex, and the Seahawks’ best days are definitely behind them as they sit at .500.
  • Likely protections: Probably Chargers-Steelers (CBS) and Vikings-Patriots (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Unfortunately for the league and NBC, the only available games also involve teams at or below .500, with Rams-Lions and Panthers-Bucs being the best options. Ravens-Falcons and Broncos-Bengals are dark-horse options involving 3-4 teams, but some of my commenters think we could be in for another “protection override” to bring in Chargers-Steelers. One potential contributing factor there (that may cast doubt on whether Chargers-Steelers was protected at all): CBS may need to send its A team to Ravens-Falcons no matter what as a prep run for the Super Bowl in that stadium, barring any crossflexes.

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. If the Steelers have gotten back to their usual winning ways this game is just going to look lopsided.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Dolphins (CBS) and Rams-Bears (FOX) (if Fox needs to protect Eagles games Eagles-Cowboys might be likeliest).
  • Other possible games: The Niners-Seahawks alternatives are starting to catch up to the options available this week, helped 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, Bengals-Chargers continues to give this week the edge as a rare unprotected game pitting two teams above (not at) .500, and Saints-Bucs and, if unprotected, Rams-Bears involve .500 teams as well. Falcons-Packers is emerging as a dark horse.

Week 15 (December 16):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
  • Prospects: 3-4 v. 7-0, a skosh lopsided but an NFC East team will always bring enough name value to overcome a mediocre start and the Eagles are still at least within striking distance.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and Packers-Bears (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Dolphins-Vikings still awaits as an intriguing alternative pitting two teams above .500, followed by Bucs-Ravens, then Hunters-Jaguars.

Week 16 (December 23):

  • Tentative game: Kansas City @ Seattle
  • Prospects: Heading into the protections this game had the same pair of records as Eagles-Rams, but the Chiefs have now picked up a blemish on their record and come from a much smaller market than the Rams, while the Seahawks have considerably worse name value than the Eagles and are staring up at the Rams in the division.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Saints (CBS) and probably nothing, but if something, Bucs-Cowboys or Vikings-Lions (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Ravens-Chargers and Original Americans-Titans were moved to Saturday night earlier this week, leaving Jaguars-Dolphins in the cold; I’m assuming that game couldn’t be protected. That leaves pretty slim pickings; Vikings-Lions is the only available game not involving a sub-.500 team and that assumes Fox didn’t protect it, with the next-best options besides Jaguars-Dolphins being Packers-Jets, Bucs-Cowboys, Falcons-Panthers, and if the Eagles aren’t maxed out, Texans-Eagles.

Week 17 (December 30):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

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

  1. The Week 10 schedule was finalized today. Arizona @ Kansas City was flexed from FOX to CBS. Still an early game though. Miami @ Green Bay was moved from early to late. Sunday Night Football stayed Dallas @ Philly. Stunning, right? My current preferred game for SNF would have been Detroit @ Chicago, but that’s me. Both at 3-3 currently and if even 1 of them lose in Week 8, they’d fall off my list. I only do matchups of .500 or better teams.

  2. Week 15 was sort of a flex for the 2 games scheduled for Sat. 12/15/18. Both games are nationally shown on NFL Network, but both were listed as 4:30pm EST/1:30pm PST. One of these games were going to move to 8:20pm EST/5:20PM PST. The games are Cleveland @ Denver and Houston @ NY Jets. Based on current records, I would have moved HOU/NY to the late. But no, the NFL Cleveland @ Denver to the late game. Neither game was that awe inspiring, so whatever. Lol.

  3. Week 16 was scheduled with 2 games to be played on Saturday amongst 4 possible games that were listed all on Sunday. Both games to be shown exclusively on NFL Network. The 4 matchups were Jax @ Mia, NYG @ Ind, Wash @ Tenn, and lastly Balt @ LAC, with 2 moving to Sat. 12/22/18. My choices to move to Sat. were Jax @ Mia and Balt @ LAC with that Chargers home game being the late game. Let’s see what they released it to be today. Well they moved Wash @ Tenn to the early Sat. game and Balt/LAC to the late Sat. game. So I got 1 right. Wash @ Tenn had about the same kind of matchup as Jax @ Mia, so I am pretty okay with these choices. NYG @ Ind, could be played in Anchorage with nobody being there to broadcast the game. I would have been okay with that. Lol.

  4. Morgan, as for your Week 14 comments, I am not so sure the NFL would want to move Bengals/ Chargers to SNF with the Stub Hub Center being such a small capacity stadium. Though you and I probably agree that it shouldn’t matter, if the game does look pretty good right now. We’ll see what happens.

  5. Jeff:

    Interesting. Was not aware two of the Week 16 games were actually supposed to be Saturday games (all were listed for Sunday). I think they did that in case NBC wanted to possibly have the game for Sunday Night Football, especially since for a while Chiefs-Seahawks looked like a prime candidate to be flexed out. Seems like NBC wanted Jaguars-Dolphins available for SNF in case the Chiefs have already wrapped up the AFC West and the Seahawks fall out of contention by the time decisions have to be made.

  6. Adding:

    For reasons already said (mainly about elected officials in Florida), I think Steelers-Jags stays in Week 11, especially given there is a good chance Steelers-Raiders in Week 14 gets flexed out (how the NFL scheduled so many 49ers and Raiders games for prime time looks ridiculous in retrospect).

  7. Well Walt You May Be Right About Week 14 But I Think Steelers Jags Gets Flexed out Cause the jags lost yesterday Cause no one wants to a 3-6 Team But I Could Be Right.

  8. Well Walt You May Be Right About Week 14 But I Think Steelers Jags Gets Flexed out Cause the jags lost yesterday Cause no one wants to watch a 3-6 Team But I Could Be Right.

  9. Andrew:

    As said already, elected officials in Florida likely will demand the NFL keep Steelers-Jags on SNF (as it’s the Jags only SNF or MNF appearance), plus the Jags are not exactly out of the AFC South race yet. Texans yes are 5-3, but they still have that bad loss to the Giants AT HOME and escaped against a Cowboys team that had virtually no one IN OT. Texans could be 4-4 or even 3-5 themselves.

  10. Walt, regarding Week 16, this was an experiment in cross-day flexing. Before the season started, four games were singled out for potentially moving to Saturday, and if you looked on the NFL web site before they announced the change all four games were listed on Sunday but with no network listed as televising them. (They had said they would announce the two games to move to Saturday no later than Week 8 but I guess they felt comfortable announcing it sooner.) I talked about this in previous posts but I guess you don’t always read the actual posts very carefully on your way to the comments section. Probably for the best, if you’d known about it you’d have cluttered up the comments with cockamamie schemes to apply this to Monday Night Football on a regular basis. (I’d like to say I’m being this cranky and snarky because it’s 4 AM my time, and it is true I’m not necessarily thinking clearly right now, but I stay up this late often enough that I’m not that tired…)

  11. I actually do think the NFL’s doing the Sunday-to-Saturday experiment as a dry run for implementing some limited flex scheduling for MNF on the next TV deal. Something like the league has a week or two late in the year where they designate three or four possible games to move to Monday Night when the schedule gets released and then actually moves one around this time of the season. Would be a long overdue and welcome development for everyone involved in my opinion.

  12. Morgan:

    Now I caught what you were talking about and you did mention it. I didn’t see it because that post was during the transitional period for this board and that may not have come up for whatever reason in my browser.

    My bad for not catching it.

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