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):
- Selected game: Philadelphia @ LA Rams.
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, this game might be in better shape than that one was, with the Chiefs failing to shake the Chargers for the division and the Seahawks currently holding 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: Texans-Eagles is the only unprotected game involving only teams at or above .500, and that assumes the Eagles’ London game doesn’t leave them maxed out on primetime appearances. Of the glut of four-win teams I mentioned last week, only the Bucs won to make Bucs-Cowboys the second choice.
- Analysis: Texans-Eagles has the same gap in records as Chiefs-Seahawks but a game worse. Simply having both teams win while the Chiefs and Seahawks lose isn’t going to overcome the tentative game bias, especially since that’ll just give the Chiefs and Seahawks that much more to play for. Having Chiefs-Seahawks get more lopsided while Texans-Eagles gets less so might work better, especially since a Chiefs win or Chargers loss would give the Chiefs a chance to clinch the division on the Thursday night following the decision and especially especially if it’s coupled by losses by other AFC division leaders to put the Chiefs closer to locking up a first-round bye, but that would still only give the Eagles and Seahawks identical records in a tie for the second wild card (technically it would be the Cowboys the Seahawks were tied with). Bucs-Cowboys, meanwhile, is a battle between a pair of mediocre teams, but if a Bucs win and Seahawks loss puts the Bucs within a game of a wild card spot it might have a shot; it might actually be an open question whether Bucs-Cowboys benefits more from the Eagles beating the Cowboys, reeling the Cowboys back into a division dogfight and creating a one-game gap in records, or from the Cowboys beating the Eagles, making the Eagles less of a roadblock to the Bucs stealing a wild card. In all likelihood Chiefs-Seahawks keeps its spot, especially with the Bucs playing the mighty Saints and the Eagles still potentially maxed out on primetime appearances, but I’m not willing to commit to it right now.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Eagles-Trumps, Colts-Titans, Bears-Vikings, Chargers-Broncos. That’s… not a whole lot, and while the two NFC games have decent chances of happening the AFC games need a lot more to break in their favor, especially Chargers-Broncos which practically needs the Chargers to lose out and the Broncos to win out and get help from other AFC wild card contenders. More on this next week.