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 16 (December 23):
- Selected game: Kansas City @ Seattle.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Browns-Ravens, Dolphins-Bills, Eagles-Trumps, Colts-Titans, Lions-Packers, Jaguars-Texans, Bears-Vikings, Panthers-Saints, Cowboys-Giants, Chargers-Broncos. After what happened last year, I’m not going to bother to try to make the percentage chances add up to 100%. In fact I’m going to be estimating the percentages based on ESPN’s FPI projections. There’s actually a decent chance we could see NBC show an AFC game and/or a game with only wild-card implications with no division title at stake, neither of which have happened in the “all division games Week 17” era, as well as a test of the league’s willingness to put on a game that only matters to one team.
- Chances of Colts-Titans: 11 percent. Huh? Didn’t I say a lot needed to go this game’s way last week? Well, this game is basically the AFC’s equivalent of the Eagles game below, and losses by the Ravens and Broncos, coupled with the general carnage in the NFC this past week, has made this game a more likely option than that one. If both teams win their next two (and the Titans’ game against the Giants is the only one where the AFC South team isn’t favored, and barely at that – FPI actually gives the Colts a 60% chance to beat the Cowboys, and there’s no line posted for that game on ESPN, so I don’t know what’s up with that), they only need the Ravens and Dolphins to lose once, and both have games coming up where they’re heavy underdogs (the Dolphins against the Vikings, the Ravens against the Chargers), so that scenario alone is more likely than any other I’m considering, and unlike Eagles-Trumps the winner of this game will have the better divisional record, so there could be a one-game gap in either direction.
- Chances of Bears-Vikings: 6 percent. This is probably the most straightforward potential outcome, being a potential NFC North title game, but also highly unlikely, requiring the Bears to lose their next two and the Vikings to win their next two as it does. Worse, there’s a pretty decent chance this just determines home field for a rematch the following week if it happens.
- Chances of Jaguars-Texans: 5 percent. The Texans split the season series with both the Colts and Titans and are slated to lose the common games tiebreaker if it comes down to that, so they only need to lose one game relative to the Colts and Titans for this to be “win and win the division, lose and settle for the wild card at best”. I’m assuming the league would take Colts-Titans if that game is for a playoff spot that’s potentially the division title.
- Chances of Dolphins-Bills: 4 percent. The Dolphins beat the Titans but lost to the Colts, so they’d need to be tied with the Titans and a game ahead of the Colts. The Dolphins beating the Jags Week 16 is probably the easiest way for this to happen; that would cinch up the conference games tiebreaker over the Broncos, and would need only a Ravens loss to the Chargers to do the same to them. This gets a little extra chance because of the possibility of a Dolphins loss slotting them behind the Browns-Ravens winner; see below.
- Chances of Browns-Ravens: 2 percent. The Ravens beat both the Titans and Broncos, and if they can pull the upset over the Chargers it would give them the edge in conference record over the Colts and Dolphins. The problem is if they lose to the Chargers, any comparison with the Colts or Dolphins would come down to strength of victory, so the Colts and Dolphins would probably have to lose their next two in that case. The Ravens would need to be tied with both the Titans and Colts if they beat the Chargers, and would still need to be tied with the Titans regardless, but a potentially bigger problem (considering the Steelers face division leaders the next two weeks) is that this game would need the Steelers to at least match the Ravens’ record or else risk that the Ravens have already won the division by the time Sunday night comes around! There’s also a long-shot scenario where the Browns can make this win-and-in, lose-and-out for both teams if they win two, the Ravens split, and the Dolphins, Colts, and Titans all lose two.
- Chances of Eagles-Trumps: 1 percent. The race for the last wild card spot in the NFC is turning into enough of a clusterbleep that heading into my calculations I thought a scenario where this was a win-and-in game was decidedly possible. The Eagles won the first matchup between these teams and are guaranteed to hold the common-games tiebreaker, so the teams could be tied or Washington could hold a one-game lead. Here’s the problem: 1) not only does this require the Vikings to lose a game, the Panthers beat the Eagles so the Panthers need to lose a game as well. 2) The Vikings are favored in both of their remaining games. 3) The Eagles play the mighty Rams this week. 4) In the likely scenario that the Eagles lose to the Rams, the Eagles would need the Lions and Bucs to lose before Week 17… and the Lions play the Vikings Week 16, who would need to lose their next two, meaning the Lions would need to specifically lose to the Bills this week, and while the Bills are favored it’s by less than a field goal.
- Chances of Cowboys-Giants: 1 percent. The Cowboys hold tiebreakers over both of the other two teams in the division, so if they lose their next two and Philadelphia and Washington win their next two, a Cowboys win would clinch the division but a loss would relegate them to the wild card at best.
- Chances of Packers-Lions: 1 percent. The NFC wild card is such a clusterbleep that even with all the chaos the Packers are in, they actually have a chance to not only make the playoffs but have a win-and-in game. They’d need to win their next two, have the Vikings lose their next two, have the Panthers lose at least once, and have the NFC East teams split. There’s even a teensy chance for this to be a win-and-in game for the Lions as well, though more would have to break just right (for one thing, Washington would have to lose both of their next two).
- Chances of Panthers-Saints: 1 percent. Carolina lost to Washington so the ideal scenario here would be if the Panthers entered the week tied with the Eagles but a game ahead of Washington. The race for home field in the NFC would also have to already be decided, as there’s no way to guarantee the Saints would have something to play for, so ensuring they don’t have anything to play for regardless of when the game is played is the next best thing.
- Chances of Chargers-Broncos: 1 percent. At this point, the Chargers are guaranteed to enter Week 17 at no worse than the five seed, and there’s no way to guarantee two teams would pass them with a loss, and the Broncos certainly can’t be that team. This is really about being a win-and-in, lose-and-out situation for the Broncos, if they end up tied with the Colts and Titans and a game ahead of the Ravens and Dolphins, but it really only works if the Chiefs have already clinched the division entering Week 17 (which means they need to win Thursday night), or else the Chargers and Chiefs would need to play simultaneously.
- Chances of no suitable game: ~67 percent. Some of my commenters have suggested that the league might give NBC two regionalized games, possibly with an NBCSN simulcast, as a way of making up for no Week 17 Sunday night game last year, if it comes to that; it makes a degree of sense to me but I’ll believe it when I see it. It would be a bit of a logistical nightmare with NBC having to put together a second broadcast team and production crew on short notice, especially since when they did put together a second broadcast team over Thanksgiving it consisted of their studio crew, which might be needed in the studio for this experiment, meaning they might have to go with the Notre Dame broadcast team of Dan Hicks and Doug Flutie, not to mention NBC probably has the least recent experience with regionalization of any of the Big Four networks (and no, digital subchannels are not an option), but they could probably find a way to make it work, and it could be an especially attractive option if it allows the league to put more games at 1 PM ET that might otherwise have to be played at 4:25. But it would need there to be a suitable pair of games that can be isolated from the rest of the slate (more than that would be even more of a logistical nightmare and would incur CBS and Fox’s wrath); the AFC North and East could potentially fit the bill, but the West would only work if the Broncos are already eliminated from the playoffs (or conversely, if their win-and-in, lose-and-out scenario has come to pass but the Chargers can still steal the division), and while the Ravens and Dolphins games could be put on for wild-card implications the Panthers and Vikings playing their respective divisions’ leaders might preclude the NFC wild card race from getting the same treatment. It would make sense for it to be on the table, but I would doubt that it was unless there was more than idle speculation behind it, and it wouldn’t be a panacea anyway; there’s still a very real chance NBC will have to go without a Week 17 game another year.