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: LA Rams @ Chicago.
Week 15 (December 16):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 5-6 v. 10-1. The Eagles got off the schneid but this game is still worryingly lopsided (and now will mark Rams games in consecutive weeks).
- Likely protections (CBS protections confirmed): Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and Packers-Bears (FOX).
- Other possible games: Cowboys-Colts, a battle of 6-5 teams, is now the only game pitting teams at or above .500, with Dolphins-Vikings slipping to 5-6 v. 6-4-1.
- Analysis: I said last week that Cowboys-Colts could get the edge even when it stood a half-game worse than Dolphins-Vikings, 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. The question now is whether that would overcome the tentative game bias. It’s worth noting that the Eagles don’t play until Monday night and they’re hosting Washington with a chance to at least establish themselves in the thick of the wild card race, and potentially tie for the wild card or even the division lead. A part of me wants to pay lip service to one of my commenters’ theories about the networks desperately wanting LA home games when practical for the sake of their entertainment divisions, but then another part of me thinks I must be crazy for giving his theories the time of day, and in any case said commenter is also predicting flexing in Cowboys-Colts. Regardless, though, if the Cowboys lose Thursday night and the Eagles win on Monday, putting the Eagles in a three-way tie for the division lead, this game keeping its spot might become a very real possibility (especially if the Colts’ winning streak ends at the hands of the struggling Jaguars). (The fact the aforementioned commenter is also predicting a “reverse doubleheader” with Patriots-Steelers at 1 PM ET and almost all the other games in the late afternoon, with Eagles-Rams taking the lead, while arguably another example of his cockamamie theories, should tell you all you need to know about how much it would be worth it to flex this game out.)
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. But this game might have a better chance of keeping its spot; the Chiefs are now only a game ahead of the Chargers for the division and the Patriots and Texans for home field or even a first round bye, while the Seahawks haven’t had the struggles the Eagles have and are tied for the second wild card and a half-game back of the first wild card.
- 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. Texans-Eagles at least stands at 8-3 v. 5-6, but that depends on the Eagles not being maxed out on primetime appearances, either because their London game doesn’t count or they get flexed out the previous week, and if the Eagles are good enough to be flexed in this week that’s all the more reason to entertain the notion not to flex them out the previous week. Below that is a glut of games involving four-win teams: Bengals-Browns, both potential Fox protections, Bills-Patriots, and Falcons-Panthers.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Browns-Ravens, Eagles-Trumps, Colts-Titans, Bears-Vikings, Panthers-Saints, Bengals-Steelers.