Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 8

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: 4-2-1 v. 3-5. Getting concerningly lopsided, and the Jaguars are losing contact with the division lead.
  • 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 intriguing at 5-3 v. 5-2; the question is whether that’s enough to overcome the tentative game bias. All the other games involving only teams at or above .500 are potentially protected or otherwise off-limits.
  • Analysis: The Jaguars are on bye this week, so their record can’t get any worse. The question is, if Houston and Washington are both sitting at six wins, is that enough to overcome a tentative featuring a still-pretty-good Steelers team? Jacksonville is an iffy market to begin with and the Jaguars aren’t looking like the team that beat the Steelers in the playoffs last year. If the Steelers win and Houston and Washington lose the tentative probably keeps its spot, but if Houston and Washington win a flex is a very real possibility.

Week 12 (November 25):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Minnesota
  • Prospects: 3-3-1 v. 4-3-1, no longer the top two teams in the division but still two name teams fighting for playoff positioning in the division.
  • 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 game on the entire weekend without a sub-.500 team. Steelers-Broncos or Dolphins-Colts are the best available options at the moment at 4-2-1 or 4-4, respectively, against 3-5. Before last week I was tempted to do something I’d never done before and make a pick two weeks in advance without making a pick for the intervening week, but I can’t rule out the Packers and Vikings going into the tank (especially with the former team playing the Patriots this week) and the 3-5 teams making it to .500, as slim a chance as that seems. (Frankly I’m not even sure that would overcome the tentative game bias but I want to keep my options open and see where we are.)

Week 13 (December 2):

  • Tentative game: San Francisco @ Seattle
  • Prospects: Is it possible Nick Mullens just saved the Niners’ other SNF game from being flexed out? Sure. Do I think a win over the one-win dysfunctional Raiders will be the start of a Garoppalo-like run that gets the 2-7 Niners into playoff contention, with the bye coming in Week 11 making 3-7 the best case scenario heading into the decision, and with the second wild card currently held by the 4-3 Seahawks? I’m not betting on it.
  • Likely protections: Probably Chargers-Steelers (CBS) and Vikings-Patriots (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If Niners-Seahawks does keep its spot it’ll be as much because of the paucity of alternatives than anything else, as only the potentially-protected games involve only teams at or above .500. Ravens-Falcons, Panthers-Bucs, and Rams-Lions all involve teams at 3-4 at worst, 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. Still, it’s entirely possible another win, even over the lowly also-one-win Giants, gives the league the cover it needs to decide not to bother with any of that and keep the tentative in place.

Week 14 (December 9):

  • Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Oakland
  • Prospects: I’m sure giving the Raiders another primetime showcase against an above .500 team on a three-game win streak is just what the league wanted.
  • 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 Bengals-Chiefs flex maxed the Chiefs out on primetime appearances (Ravens-Chiefs would have been a protection candidate otherwise, though not necessarily topping Pats-Dolphins), but Bengals-Chargers continues to be a good escape valve at 5-3 v. 5-2, even if the league might not want to showcase a game at tiny StubHub Center where half the stadium might be travelling Bengals fans, and Rams-Bears features two division leaders if Fox didn’t protect it. If worst comes to worst, Saints-Bucs and Falcons-Packers are dark horses involving 3-4 teams.

Week 15 (December 16):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
  • Prospects: 4-4 v. 8-0, 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 is the only available game involving only teams at or above .500, and at 4-4 v. 4-3-1 it’s hard to see that overcoming the tentative game bias, the market sizes, the overall name value, and the potential unbeaten-team angle. Bucs-Ravens is a dark horse at 4-4 v. 3-4.

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. Still, it’d be two playoff teams if the playoffs started today, and two teams above .500, and given the alternatives (or lack thereof) that should be enough to keep its spot.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Saints (CBS) and probably nothing, but if something, Bucs-Cowboys or Vikings-Lions (FOX).
  • Other possible games: I’m assuming the games singled out for a potential move to Saturday couldn’t be protected, and with the Jaguars’ slide the games that actually did move to Saturday are the only ones in that group that would have been worth protecting. Texans-Eagles would be the only available game not involving a sub-.500 team if the Eagles were available, with Vikings-Lions and Falcons-Panthers pitting teams at 3-4 against teams better than that, and Bucs-Cowboys pitting two 3-4 teams against one another.

Week 17 (December 30):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

14 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 8

  1. Week 11’s going to be a really interesting call because the Jags aren’t quite the dumpster fire-type bad that compels the NFL to make their normal flex – on the other hand, though, there are so many quality games between name teams in the early window that I wouldn’t be surprised if the NFL went with, say, Vikings-Bears or Eagles-Saints instead.

  2. Washington raised a (legitimate) concern with hosting a SNF game the weekend before the Thursday game with the Cowboys a few years back.

  3. Nice thoughts on a possibility of Hou-Was for week 11 but Steelers are a big draw.
    Packers Vikings a LOCK unless Rodgers gets hurt.
    Week 13 Flex
    Week 14 Flex
    15 Lock
    16 Lock

  4. As for the tentative matchup for Week 11 of Pitt.(4-2-1) @ Jack.(3-5), I think this game has a better chance of staying in it’s spot if Pittsburgh actually LOSES this week at Baltimore. This would set the matchup of Pitt.(4-3-1) @ Jack.(3-5) and less lopsided. My alternatives for Week 11, based on records after Week 8, go as such in my order of preference(and remember, I only rank teams with winning records):

    #1–Minn.(4-3-1) @ Chi.(4-3)
    #2–Hou.(5-3) @ Wash.(5-2) <—getting very intriguing after Texans started 0-3
    #3–Phil.(4-4) @ N.O.(6-1)
    #4–Cin.(5-3) @ Balt.(4-4)

    My current Week 12 rankings after Week 8's standings go as such:

    #1–G.B.(3-3-1) @ Minn.(4-3-1) <—the tentative game and likely SNF game
    #2–Sea.(4-3) @ Car.(5-2)

    My current Week 13 possibilities after Week 8's standings go as such:

    L.A.C.(5-2) @ Pitt.(4-2-1), Minn.(4-3-1) @ N.E.(6-2)

    My current Week 14 possibilities after Week 8's standings go as such:

    Balt.(4-4) @ K.C.(7-1) <–I know you say Chiefs are maxed out Morgan, L.A.R.(8-0) @ Chi.(4-3), N.E.(6-2) @ Mia.(4-4), Cin.(5-3) @ L.A.C.(5-2) <–getting to be most likely

    My current Week 15 possibilities after Week 8's standings go as such:

    Phil.(4-4) @ L.A.R.(8-0) <–tentative game & unless Eagles dive, will likely stay, Mia.(4-4) @ Minn.(4-3-1), G.B.(3-3-1) @ Chi.(4-3) <–would be same matchup of Week 1 SNF, so has that going against it, N.E.(6-2) @ Pitt.(4-2-1) <–I know, I know, CBS protected this game the day the 2018 NFL schedule came out in April. Especially after what happened in last year's matchup, also in Week 15, with the controversial no TD by Jesse James. Yes you heard me right, Jesse James. Can't make that shit up. LOL.

    My current Week 16 possibilities after Week 8's standings go as such:

    K.C.(7-1) @ Sea.(4-3) <–tentative game that might go away if Chiefs continue to win and Seahawks start to go into the tank. That's the only way I see it going away though. Hou.(5-3) @ Phil.(4-4), and Pitt.(4-2-1) @ N.O.(6-1).

    My current Week 17 possibilities after Week 8's standings go as such:

    Car.(5-2) @ N.O.(6-1), Chi.(4-3) @ Minn.(4-3-1), Cin.(5-3) @ Pitt.(4-2-1), and Phil.(4-4) @ Wash.(5-2).

    Panthers/Saints could be a matchup for seeding, as both might already have playoff spots locked up going into Week 17 and that hurts this game's chances.

    Bears/Vikings has a chance to be the matchup, as long as my Packers aren't right there with these teams come Week 17. As tight as the NFC North is right now, Week 17 could have the 1st place team, after Week 16, fall to 4th place in the final standings. I say this because after Week 6 & 8, the Bears were in 1st place. After Week 7, the Bears were in last(4th place).

    Bengals/Steelers could be a win and in, lose and out matchup. Though I don't see that, as I do think that 1 of the 2 Wild Cards will come out of the AFC North. The other Wild Card being the Chargers. I see no Wild Card from the AFC East or AFC South. The Ravens play into this mix as well, especially if they win at home this week, at home, vs. the Steelers.

    Eagles/Redskins (sorry Morgan) could easily be a win and in, lose and out game. The Panthers will likely have a Wild Card, unless the beat the Saints in both Week 15 and Week 17. Then the Saints will likely get a Wild Card. Heck, if the Falcons get on a roll, they can snag a Wild Card too. The Seahawks could be in the Wild Card fight too. And if the Eagles get on a roll, they could be in a fight for the Wild Card or NFC East. And this is the Redskins we are talking about, so I am not sold on them even making the playoffs yet. Since the league expanded in 2002, with the addition of the Texans, the Redskins have only won the AFC East twice. That was in 2012 and 2015. So maybe they are on a win the division every 3 seasons kick right now and win it again this year, in 2018.

    And the way things are looking now, we could see a repeat of last season and not have a SNF game in Week 17 this season.

    This season, there were 4 teams(of 12) that made the playoffs(in 2017), that were not awarded a Sunday Night Football game. They were the following:

    Carolina—11-5-0 (2nd in NFC South)
    Atlanta—10-6-0 (3rd in NFC South)
    Tennessee—9-7-0(2nd in AFC South)
    Buffalo—9-7-0(2nd in NFC East)

    Of these 4 teams, I think the Panthers got treated with the least respect of the 4. They actually tied the Saints for the division, but lost on a tiebreaker(lost both matchups vs. Saints). I, myself, didn't see them regressing and they really haven't. The Falcons had been a pretty good fixture on Sunday Night Football lately too. I did see them regressing, as they were way inconsistent last year. As for the Texans, I think the league/NBC considered them too boring and perhaps going to fall off. As for the Bills, everyone knew they were going to suck this season when the schedule came out this year(without Tyrod Taylor no less, go figure), and they surely haven't disappointed when it comes to sucking.

    Heck Carolina got such disrespect that they landed 2 Primetime games all season. Week 10 @ Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football(FOX/NFL Network) and Week 15, at home, vs. the Saints on Monday Night Football(ESPN).

    In a nutshell, it does seem to me that the NFL/NBC don't like to schedule teams from the Southeast(AFC and NFC South Division's) to play on Sunday Night Football all that often.

    That's my take this week. Go Pack Go this week in New England on Sunday Night Football. 🙂

  5. I meant Titans, not Texans when talking about the league/NBC thinking they were too boring for Sunday Night Football.

  6. Anybody have a sense of what happens to secondary ticket prices after a team is flexed? I have tickets to SD @ Pit on 12/2 and probably can’t make it if it gets moved to 8pm. Wondering if I am better off selling now or waiting until it is announced

  7. Dan, being that the game is in Pittsburgh, I think you’re good no matter when you sell them. Just be sure that the buyer knows that the game time may change.

  8. Still think Week 11 will be Steelers-Jags. Jags still on the fringes of the playoff race and I suspect politicians in North Florida will come hard after the NFL if that game is flexed out after the NFL was heavily criticized there for only giving the Jags two prime time games all season. Also, Steelers still enough of a draw and the Sunday nighter with the Raiders (Week 14) is almost certain to be flexed out after the Raiders disaster on Thursday night.

    Week 12 is unlikely to change since even with Green Bay at 3-4-1, the NFC North isn’t exactly a runaway.

    Week 13 I still see a “protection override” with Chargers-Steelers moving to SNF since that game is on CBS and otherwise would not be as heavily seen. One potential stumbling block, however, is CBS already has Chiefs-Raiders at 4:05 PM, which means the likely scenario would be 49ers-Seahawks would go to FOX at 4:25 while CBS likely gets Rams-Lions if 49ers-Seahawks is flexed out.

    Week 14 likely sees Rams-Bears replacing Steelers-Raiders, though Broncos-49ers likely has to move to FOX at 4:25 with Steelers-Raiders going to 4:05 on CBS and some additional changes that likely include Chargers-Bengals becoming a 1:00 PM game on CBS and Falcons-Packers (another contender for SNF) moving to CBS as well. Chargers-Bengals can’t become SNF in all likelihood because the Chargers play the Week 15 Thursday nighter in KC.

    Week 15 is unlikely to change because Eagles are likely in the hunt for the NFC East and playoff seeding will likely be in play in the NFC with the Rams.

    Week 16 as of now could very well remain Chiefs-Seahawks depending on how the Seahawks do the next few weeks.

    Too many Week 17 possibilities as of now. Still think the NFL should go to what I already said about having all games in one conference at 3:00 PM and the other at 7:00 PM ET and divide such up between ALL of the broadcast partners.

  9. Two things could prevent Vikings vs Bears from being flexed in week 11.
    1. Quick turnaround with the Bears playing a Thanksgiving morning game vs. Detroit.
    2. Vikings already have a Sunday night game in week 12 vs GB. We’ve seen KC get two Sunday night games in a row earlier this season (one regularly scheduled, the following week was flexed in). But if Green Bay continues to slide in the wrong direction, I don’t think Aaron Rodgers alone could keep this game on Sunday night.

  10. Good point on the quick turnaround, Joe – and that may be the biggest reason PIT-JAX keeps the Sunday Night slot because literally all the enticing flex options in Week 11 (MIN-CHI, PHI-NO, DAL-ATL, HOU-WAS) involve teams that are also playing on Thanksgiving.

  11. Adding to the last post:

    Not only do the Chargers play the final Thursday nighter of the year in Week 15 in KC, but the following week play a Week 16 Saturday nighter against a Ravens team that could be fighting for a Wild Card spot.

  12. Joe:

    Very surprised they flexed out Steelers-Jaguars. I would not be surprised if elected officials in Florida, especially with a slew of elections that could actually help decide control of congress and the senate tomorrow, try to at least grandstand by saying they will try to force the NFL to move Steelers-Jags back to SNF to appease voters in North Florida.

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