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):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ Philadelphia
- Prospects: 7-2 v. 5-4. Not as lopsided as it could have been, and the Eagles are only a half-game back of the lead of the always-popular NFC East.
- Likely protections: Jaguars-Titans if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Patriots (FOX).
- Other possible games: Packers-Niners has lost some luster with the Packers losing to the mediocre Chargers, but they still represent the only two losses either team has taken. Saints-Panthers has both teams a half-game better than the tentative on their respective sides only by virtue of each team having had their bye while the Seahawks and Eagles haven’t yet.
- Analysis: 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, pitting one of the league’s biggest names against another undefeated team with each team two games better than the tentative, pinned to the late afternoon slot and seemingly doomed to limited distribution, before even getting to Saints-Panthers. Fox could conceivably have a split national window, with the Packers and Niners sent to the West Coast and Midwest while Cowboys-Patriots gets sent to the South and Northeast, but split-national windows are typically reserved for circumstances where the games in question aren’t that great, not for when there are two games either of which could anchor the window on their own, and Fox probably isn’t interested in diluting the Cowboys-Patriots audience. Ideally, the league would flex in Packers-Niners, crossflex either Seahawks-Eagles or Saints-Panthers to CBS, and have each game anchor either the early-doubleheader or singleheader window, but who knows if the league would be willing to do anything that sensible, especially since the Seahawks probably wouldn’t be happy about a game formerly scheduled for primetime now being scheduled for the morning in their home time zone.
Seahawks-Eagles isn’t so bad it would normally warrant being flexed out, but the league has flexed out perfectly fine tentatives in the past to increase the distribution of games that would otherwise be relegated to limited distribution, to the point of twice allowing the former tentative to anchor the late spot of the doubleheader, not to mention the infamous “protection override” of 2013. However, the record of the league doing so with underdistributed late-doubleheader games, as opposed to 4:05 singleheader games, is limited, and the league has twice in the past twelve months failed to boost the distribution of Rams divisional games that instead languished at 4:05, though for understandable reasons (I predicted no flex both times). A flex would represent the Packers’ sixth primetime appearance but none of their remaining games before Week 17 seem terribly likely to be flexed in. Given the current set of records I believe the league would pull the flex, but I can’t say they would with complete confidence and I could easily see a scenario where the Packers lose again while the Seahawks knock off the Niners (the Eagles are on bye this week so their record can’t get better or worse) and suddenly not only is the race close enough that the tentative game bias would (normally) take over, the Niners are no longer unbeaten (taking away Packers-Niners’ big storyline) and the Seahawks have a very real chance of stealing the division. 8-2 v. 5-4 would still be a skosh lopsided, and Packers-Niners could still be flexed in if the Packers win to put it at 8-2 v. 8-1 (which is why I’m not making a contingent prediction right now), but I can’t count on anything at the moment.
Week 13 (December 1):
- Tentative game: New England @ Houston
- Prospects: 8-1 v. 6-3, potentially a skosh lopsided and lacking the unbeaten factor, but both teams lead their respective divisions and it’s hard to say no to Tom Brady.
- 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) Niners-Ravens is the only game on the Sunday slate involving two teams above .500, and right now if Fox left it unprotected a crossflex to CBS to anchor their doubleheader (currently stuck with Browns-Steelers or Chargers-Broncos, with Raiders-Chiefs the best game on their entire slate) seems more likely. Titans-Colts is the closest dark horse.
Week 14 (December 8):
- Tentative game: Seattle @ LA Rams
- Prospects: 7-2 v. 5-3. The Seahawks could be defending a wild-card berth and contending for the division lead, but if the Rams continue to be mediocre the game could be vulnerable. 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 might be looking increasingly iffy now. Titans-Raiders is a dark horse.
Week 15 (December 15):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: Had I posted this before the Thursday night game, it would be 6-3 v. 4-5, notably less lopsided than before, and the Chargers would have just come off of upsetting the Packers, raising the prospect of the Chargers going on another late-season run. Then the Chargers went and lost to the previously 4-4 Raiders.
- 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, but part of the reason Packers-Niners might be flexed in is because that game doesn’t even look like a dark horse at the moment with the Bears at 3-5 (more on this in a bit). Right now Seahawks-Panthers is the only game likely to overcome the tentative game bias if Rams-Cowboys was protected, though Bills-Steelers could be a contender if the Steelers go on a late-season run without Ben Roethlisberger; CBS’ potentially-protected games are dark horses.
Week 16 (December 22):
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: With the Bears seemingly in freefall, this might now have surpassed Vikings-Chargers as the most vulnerable tentative in a vacuum (ie, not considering the competition and the other factors that might get Seahawks-Eagles flexed out). That could make things interesting with the best alternatives (not counting the late game of Fox’s doubleheader) being games that were reserved for a potential move to Saturday on NFLN, and may be related to why the decision for which games will make that move seems to have been postponed two weeks to after this coming week (though the only sign of that is if you pull up the Week 16 schedule page in desktop mode).
- 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. I’m not a believer in the cockamamie theory one of my commenters has come up with for the delay (which I’m not going to dignify by describing), but I do believe once the announcement comes for which games move to Saturday, we’re going to get a lot of clarity about how the Saturday flex interacts with SNF. If both games are off-limits to NBC, Panthers-Colts is the best option available, with Saints-Titans as a dark horse.
Week 17 (December 29):
- Playoff positioning watch begins Week 10 due to the postponement of the Week 16 Saturday flex as noted above.