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. I didn’t look at the comments on last week’s post until I was getting ready to write this one, so I didn’t see some of the discussion of potential reasons not to flex in the Texans game, namely that Daniel Snyder’s team might have been concerned about hosting a Sunday night game the week before playing in Dallas on Thanksgiving. Given that, shying away from that game in favor of a slightly worse game with better name value makes some sense, but the Bears are also playing a road divisional Thanksgiving game on an even shorter turnaround (though also a shorter trip), and it’s still surprising Fox wouldn’t have protected Vikings-Bears, or raised bloody hell if the reason they didn’t protect it was because they figured the league wouldn’t flex it in because of those turnaround concerns. For that matter, while I doubt the NFL is in as much hot water with politicians in the Jacksonville area as one of my commenters imagines, if it’s even a slight concern, given the mediocrity of the alternatives, the attraction of the Steelers, and the fact the Jaguars’ season isn’t a complete disaster and would be “waiting in the wings” for a wild card if I started my playoff watch this week, it might tip the playing field in favor of the tentative game bias.
Week 12 (November 25):
- Tentative game: Green Bay @ Minnesota
- Prospects: 3-4-1 v. 5-3-1; another reason the Vikings-Bears flex is surprising is that it now creates back-to-back weeks of divisional rivalries involving the same team. Vikings-Bears is now the more enticing game for the division lead, and the Packers have slid below .500, but losing on the road to the Rams and Patriots is understandable (needing a last-second field goal to beat the Garoppalo-less 49ers at home on a Monday night before that less so), and the Packers are still the biggest name team (with the biggest star) in the division with their rivalries with the Vikings and Bears more attractive than whatever the Vikings and Bears have with each other.
- 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 game all Sunday without a sub-.500 team (indeed another factor that might have tilted towards keeping the tentative Week 11 might have been that all the best games on the Sunday slate involve teams playing on Thanksgiving). Dolphins-Colts at 5-4 v. 3-5 is the option with the best worst team; hard to imagine that overcoming the tentative game bias let alone the name value of the teams.
- Analysis: If Green Bay loses at home to the Dolphins and Aaron Rodgers goes down, does this game keep its spot? Throw in a Colts win over the Jags at home and the Vikings on bye, and without trying to predict injuries that would put Dolphins-Colts at 6-4 v. 4-5 against a tentative at 3-5-1 v. 5-3-1. Even without Rodgers I don’t think that overcomes the lack of name value. If we were really desperate we could look at Steelers-Broncos, now guaranteed to be 6-2-1 v. 3-6 with the Broncos on bye, which is probably way too lopsided to justify. So we look at me being wrong about the protections (again). Patriots-Jets might be even more lopsided than Steelers-Broncos and would only invite endless butt-fumble replays, but Seahawks-Panthers could be intriguing; the Panthers’ Thursday night loss only makes the game less lopsided and potentially holding huge wild card implications if the Seahawks can pull off an upset road win over the Rams. It’d be difficult not to flex in a 6-3 v. 5-4 game currently on the singleheader network at the expense of a 3-5-1 v. 5-3-1 game, especially since Russell Wilson and Cam Newton bring enough name value to potentially overcome the rivalry factor.
- Final prediction: Green Bay Packers @ Minnesota Vikings (no change) (assuming Seahawks-Panthers is protected, the Packers win, or the Seahawks lose), Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers (if the Seahawks win, Packers lose, and the game is unprotected or, heaven forbid, has its protection overridden). I swear I’m not losing my edge even though I’m making a contingency prediction a week in advance rather than just punting things to a Last-Minute Remarks post.
Week 13 (December 2):
- Tentative game: San Francisco @ Seattle
- Prospects: Is it possible Nick Mullens saved the Niners’ other SNF game from being flexed out last Thursday night? 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 Vikings at 5-3-1 with the 4-4 Seahawks looking up at it? 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 has the best worse team at 4-4 v. 4-5, with Panthers-Bucs and Rams-Lions involving 3-5 teams, so it’s easy to see why 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 what just became a five-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. 6-2, 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. Falcons-Packers is improving if the Packers don’t go into freefall.
Week 15 (December 16):
- Tentative game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 4-4 v. 8-1, a skosh lopsided but an NFC East team will always bring enough name value to overcome a mediocre start and the Eagles are only a game back of the division lead.
- 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 even with both teams winning to get to 5-4 v. 5-3-1 while the Rams fell from the ranks of the unbeatens, it’s still hard to see that overcoming the tentative game bias, market sizes, and overall name value. The next best options involve 3-5 teams in Hunters-Jaguars and Bucs-Ravens.
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, and that’s the case once again now, 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, both teams are playoff contenders, which could be enough for the game to keep its spot in the penultimate week of the season.
- 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. With the Falcons crawling up to .500, though, Falcons-Panthers could be becoming an intriguing alternative. Texans-Eagles would also be an option if the Eagles were available. Jaguars-Dolphins and Fox’s potentially protected games are very dark horses.
Week 17 (December 30):
- Playoff positioning watch begins next week because I’d rather not start it in a week where I don’t get the post up until after the Thursday night game, especially since I’m probably going to have to change how I do this part this year.