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 and last – 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 may receive 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. More rarely, 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 last year was the first time it showed such a game. 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 17):
- Tentative game: Chicago @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 3-2 v. 3-2. Pretty good shape at the moment, even if neither team looks as strong as last year.
- Likely protections: Patriots-Eagles (CBS) and Cowboys-Lions (FOX).
- Other possible games: Texans-Ravens is the only game involving two teams above .500. Jaguars-Colts and Saints-Bucs are dark horses.
Week 12 (November 24):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ Philadelphia
- Prospects: 4-1 v. 3-2. Not in any real danger.
- Likely protections: Jaguars-Titans if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Patriots (FOX).
- Other possible games: We have a Sunday night tentative with potential wild-card and division implications for both teams and a late-afternoon feature game pitting two big names on top of their divisions with one being unbeaten, yet we also have Packers-Niners, a game between two teams with one loss between them that’s pinned to the late afternoon slot and seemingly doomed to limited distribution. That’s not even getting into Saints-Panthers, a game with the same pair of records as the tentative that would have the division lead on the line if it were played today. Giants-Bears is also a dark horse (or was before Thursday night).
Week 13 (December 1):
- Tentative game: New England @ Houston
- Prospects: 5-0 v. 3-2; even if the Texans are around .500 it would be difficult to kick the world-beating Patriots out of this spot.
- Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs (CBS) and Niners-Ravens, Packers-Giants, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games; even with no teams on a bye (which has not always been the case on Thanksgivings past) Raiders-Chiefs and Niners-Ravens are the only games on the Sunday slate involving two teams above .500. Titans-Colts and Bucs-Jaguars are dark horses.
Week 14 (December 8):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ LA Rams
- Prospects: This game isn’t for the division lead as might have been expected before the season started, but it could still have big wild card implications.
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Patriots (CBS) and Niners-Saints if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Lions-Vikings and Ravens-Bills are strong contenders with Lions-Vikings having an off chance of being the Fox protection. Colts-Bucs, Titans-Raiders and Chargers-Jaguars are dark horses.
Week 15 (December 15):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: If we get a game flexed out all season it’s probably this one at 3-2 v. 2-3, though the lack of lopsidedness may work in its favor more than the mediocrity works against it.
- Likely protections: Texans-Titans, Jaguars-Raiders, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Cowboys if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Bears-Packers would probably be protected if one of the teams in Fox’s current late-afternoon feature game wasn’t the Cowboys. Seahawks-Panthers is also an option, and CBS’ unprotected game(s) and Bucs-Lions are dark horses.
Week 16 (December 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: 4-1 v. 3-2, a game with likely playoff implications for both teams.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Browns if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: As with last year, I’m assuming the games that have been set aside for a potential move to Saturday can’t be protected; Rams-Niners would likely be protected if that weren’t the case, and Bills-Patriots would also be intriguing if it didn’t get picked by NFLN. Panthers-Colts is the best option available, with Saints-Titans as a dark horse. Texans-Bucs and Raiders-Chargers are interesting dark-horse games to look at if they don’t get moved to Saturday.
Week 17 (December 29):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.