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):
- Selected game: Seattle @ LA Rams.
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, although the Chargers are at least within striking distance of the anemic AFC wild-card race.
- Likely protections: Texans-Titans, Jaguars-Raiders, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Cowboys if anything (FOX).
- Other possible games: In terms of pure record, Bills-Steelers and Texans-Titans probably have the edge over Seahawks-Panthers as the Panthers have tumbled below .500; Seahawks-Panthers is now only a game better in each column than the tentative. Jaguars-Raiders and 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) deserve mention as well if we’re going to consider 5-6 teams (all analyses in this post don’t include the Thanksgiving games).
- Analysis: On the one hand, Seahawks-Panthers probably still has more overall name value than the games involving 6-5 teams, and the league might feel they owe it to the Seahawks for flexing out an otherwise-serviceable tentative to the morning their time this past week, even though the Seahawks won that game. On the other hand, Cam Newton isn’t playing in that game, the Steelers (despite lacking their own star quarterback) are one of the few teams that can pop a rating no matter who’s on the team, how they’re doing, or who they’re playing, and there has to come a point where even one of the most marginal teams on name value, like the Bills, warrants a Sunday Night showcase, and with the Bills playing (and winning) on Thanksgiving and getting a Saturday game next week, not to mention a playoff game in their future, now might be an ideal time (though the Bills would likely prefer to have as much rest as possible before that Saturday game). Those two games are probably the only realistic alternatives – even if it’s not their feature game, Fox would likely scream bloody murder at losing both halves of the Bears-Packers rivalry this year with the first half becoming a special Kickoff Game not involving the defending champions and the second half being flexed in outside Week 17 – but it probably requires the inferior teams to be at least two games clear of the Chargers, who play the lowly Broncos this week.
Week 16 (December 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: 7-4 v. 5-6. Looks a little more respectable (and the Bears’ record doesn’t include the Thanksgiving game), but with the Seahawks and Vikings running away with the NFC’s wild cards, the Bears aren’t exactly in the thick of the playoff mix.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Browns if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: Saints-Titans at least involves a team over .500, but the Saints could lock up the division as soon as tonight (though they’d still be in the thick of the race for seeding among the NFC division winners) and the Titans’ name value is virtually nonexistent. Ravens-Browns and Panthers-Colts are dark horses.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Steelers-Ravens, Titans-Texans, Colts-Jaguars, Niners-Seahawks.