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.