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):
- Selected game: Chicago @ LA Rams.
Week 12 (November 24):
- Selected game: Green Bay @ San Francisco.
Week 13 (December 1):
- Selected game: New England @ Houston.
Week 14 (December 8):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 8-2 v. 6-4. The Seahawks could be defending a wild-card berth and contending for the division lead, but the Rams’ continued mediocrity could start making it dangerously lopsided. A potential complication: the Chargers are currently slated to play in the 4:05 ET slot on Fox, so either LA team would need to serve as a CBS undercard to Chiefs-Patriots if this is flexed out (Chargers-Jaguars could theoretically be moved to the early afternoon but that might be too complicated and still require a move to CBS or giving LA a “double singleheader”).
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Patriots (CBS) and Niners-Saints if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Ravens-Bills looks like the only real contender for a flex if Niners-Saints was protected; Lions-Vikings had an off chance of being the Fox protection, but that would be very iffy now. The prospect of Niners-Saints being unprotected should nonetheless be taken into consideration.
- Analysis: Best-case scenario for Ravens-Bills is 9-2 v. 8-3 with the Rams falling to 6-5; I don’t know that that overcomes the tentative game bias given the weak name value of the Bills (and even the Ravens would mostly be valuable for Lamar Jackson). The prospect of Niners-Saints standing at 10-1 v. 9-2, though, might be a little more interesting, although as an early-afternoon game on a five-game Fox singleheader, it wouldn’t face the issues in distribution Packers-Niners would have, though New York might be deprived of the game with the Jets playing at home in the early slot and Los Angeles would definitely be deprived with the Chargers playing in the 4:05 game. As noted, either one game involving an LA team would have to move to CBS (which already has three games in the late time slot) or Chargers-Jaguars would have to move to the early afternoon (which would likely still require a crossflex) if any flex took place. Given these complexities, and the circumstances surrounding the games (and the fact it’s definitely more likely than not Niners-Saints was protected), I don’t think it’s worth pulling any deeper breakdown of the flex possibilities after the weekend, but I wouldn’t be completely blindsided by Niners-Saints being flexed in.
- Final prediction: Seattle Seahawks @ Los Angeles Rams (no change).
Week 15 (December 15):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: 8-3 v. 4-7 continues to raise concerns about this game being concerningly lopsided. This game is back to having the worst team in any tentative in the flex period.
- Likely protections: Texans-Titans, Jaguars-Raiders, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Cowboys if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: Seahawks-Panthers is starting to look a bit lopsided, and only beats Bills-Steelers on name value and a single game the Seahawks have over the Bills, and Texans-Titans isn’t much worse than that. Jaguars-Raiders is a dark horse, as is Bears-Packers, which probably would have been protected if one of the teams in Fox’s current late-afternoon feature game wasn’t the Cowboys.
Week 16 (December 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: 7-4 v. 4-6. Having the two most attractive unprotected games on the Sunday slate move to Saturday on NFLN may result in some discussions on how to handle SNF in future Week 16s if the NFL keeps up with this “Saturday flexible scheduling” experiment.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Browns if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: There aren’t any games left on the Sunday slate involving two teams above .500, with even Fox’s late DH game of Cowboys-Eagles involving a team at that mark; Panthers-Colts and Saints-Titans share that status while also being unprotected. Ravens-Browns would be the next-best dark horse if it’s unprotected, followed by Raiders-Chargers if games previously singled out for a potential move to Saturday can be moved to SNF, but the Chargers are a half-game worse than the Bears and could have a game flexed out the previous week; being less lopsided is the only thing it would have going for it.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Steelers-Ravens, Saints-Panthers, Titans-Texans, Colts-Jaguars, Niners-Seahawks.