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):
- Selected game: Minnesota @ Chicago.
Week 12 (November 25):
- Selected game: Green Bay @ Minnesota.
Week 13 (December 2):
- Selected game: LA Chargers @ Pittsburgh.
Week 14 (December 9):
- Selected game (announced last week): LA Rams @ Chicago.
Week 15 (December 16):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 4-6 v. 10-1. Getting concerningly lopsided with people starting to genuinely ask what’s wrong with the Eagles.
- Likely protections (CBS protections confirmed): Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and Packers-Bears (FOX).
- Other possible games: Dolphins-Vikings (5-5 v. 5-4-1) has been joined by Cowboys-Colts (5-5 v. 5-5) as games involving only teams at or above .500, which is a testament to the remarkable run the Colts have been on since starting the season 1-5. If those are the numbers Cowboys-Colts probably gets the edge, even with a slightly worse pair of records, given the respective market sizes and name value, the story the Colts are becoming, Andrew Luck’s star power, and the Cowboys’ general ability to pop a rating. If the Eagles keep falling into crisis and the Rams continue to be world-beaters, that would probably be enough to overcome the tentative game bias. I don’t think any other games don’t involve a team with an outright worse record than the Eagles.
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 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. Still, the Seahawks aren’t the disaster the Eagles might be becoming and are only a half-game out of a playoff spot, the Chiefs losing the Rams game both makes the game less lopsided (when combined with the Seahawks winning) and puts the Chiefs only a game ahead of Pittsburgh for home field and a game and a half ahead of the Chargers for the division lead, and there aren’t any alternatives as good as what’s available the previous week (and the alternatives there aren’t THAT great), so this might have a better chance of keeping its spot.
- Likely protections: Steelers-Saints (CBS) and probably nothing, but if something, Bucs-Cowboys or Vikings-Lions (FOX). (This assumes Fox couldn’t protect any of the games singled out for a potential move to Saturday before the season.)
- Other possible games: No games involve only teams at or above .500, which is a problem when the tentative does, potential lopsidedness aside. Falcons-Panthers, Vikings-Lions, and if the Eagles aren’t maxed out on primetime appearances (or get flexed out the previous week, but why would you flex out a team one week and flex them in the next?), Texans-Eagles involve 4-6 teams at least.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Eagles-Trumps, Colts-Titans, Bears-Vikings, Panthers-Saints, Bengals-Steelers.