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):
- Selected game: Buffalo @ Pittsburgh.
Week 16 (December 22):
It appears the NFL will exercise the 6-day window to decide whether to flex the Saints-Titans game in Week 16. It's usually a 12-day window except in Week 17, but all parties agreed to it this time. Would not be surprised if this ends up a night game.
— Katherine Terrell (@Kat_Terrell) December 10, 2019
- Tentative game: Kansas City @ Chicago
- Prospects: 9-4 v. 7-6. The Bears are still a couple games out of the playoffs, but they’ve clawed back to enough respectability, and made this only the second game on the Sunday slate involving two teams above .500, that it makes it all the more incredible we’re here right now.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Browns if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: Saints-Titans is the only game on the Sunday afternoon slate involving two teams over .500. Given the unique circumstances, Ravens-Browns could be a dark horse despite being massively lopsided, but at this point one loss each by the Patriots and Chiefs would lock up the 1 seed for the Ravens and leave them with nothing to play for, and if they were flexed to Sunday night both would be playing before them. (And no, there is no way Fox didn’t protect an NFC East division rivalry involving the Cowboys that was already slated to be their late doubleheader game before the season, and no way Fox would let the league override that protection to take away what could be an effective NFC East title game when NBC already aired the first game between the teams. You could argue it would be Fox’s way of repaying the league for letting them keep two high-profile Niners games on their singleheader in recent weeks, but then why didn’t the league take those games away in the first place if it has that kind of power?)
- Analysis: As seen above, a Saints beat writer from the Athletic tweeted this week that the NFL would exercise a “six-day window” – to use a term that normally only applies to college flexible scheduling – before deciding whether to flex out Chiefs-Bears for Saints-Titans. This was utterly flabbergasting to me – record aside, NBC would take Patrick Mahomes on a mid-small market team against a big-market team that’s one of the league’s most storied franchises over Drew Brees on a small-market team against a mid-small market team with no name value whatsoever seven days of the week and twice on Sunday, no pun intended – and despite the second sentence of the tweet in question acknowledging that this is outside of the NFL’s normal procedures and that “all parties agreed” to such a move, I wasn’t entirely convinced the writer in question was actually reporting such a move as opposed to misinterpreting the league’s lack of any announced changes as a sign they hadn’t made a decision yet instead of their leaving the published schedule unchanged, based on the first sentence’s use of “it appears” and “6-day window” as though it was an existing concept – but the NFL does seem to have confirmed the move to the Chicago Sun-Times. Of course, this also provides ammunition to certain commenters of mine to argue that their wild and wacky theories of the massive scheduling changes they imagine the league carrying out despite little to no precedent are feasible or seriously considered in the league offices. It’s especially crazy because on paper, Chiefs-Bears is nowhere near as questionable a game as it might have been earlier in the season; from the best-case scenario I laid out last week, the Saints lost and Titans won to make their game less lopsided, but the Chiefs and Bears both won to create a second game involving two teams above .500 and put themselves only a game behind on both sides.
Some of the initial speculation I saw surrounding this involved the question of whether the Bears would still be alive for the playoffs, but what I initially wondered about was the possibility that the Chiefs, which have already locked up the division, might not have much to play for themselves. The Chiefs are only a game back of the Patriots for a first-round bye with the tiebreaker in hand and, even if they miss that, could want to avoid a first-round matchup with the Bills, and they’re only a game ahead of the AFC South leaders on that front, but it’s still questionable whether that would create enough interest in the game, and of course whether the Bears would still have anything to play for, especially by the end of the night, could still reduce the value further.
I mentioned the prospect of a Titans-Texans division title game last week, but pretty much any other game would likely be picked over it and I don’t think there’s a situation where the result of Saints-Titans would affect the scheduling of more than the respective teams’ own games, but there is a potential Week 17 SNF game that could affect the flex decision here: Bears-Vikings for the wild card. There’s little precedent that the league thinks about the logistics of announcing the Week 17 Sunday night game when considering the Week 16 flex, but there is precedent that might be on their mind suggesting maybe they should. Namely, I’m reminded of 2013, when the league questionably flexed in Bears-Eagles Week 16, and found themselves in the situation where the loser of the game would be guaranteed to be in a division title game, but not the winner. The Cowboys’ result earlier in the day assured a Cowboys-Eagles division title game, which was duly scheduled for NBC, but the league also made a contingent scheduling decision to move Packers-Bears to Fox’s late afternoon slot if the Bears lost (which they did), and Aaron Rodgers played in that game but Tony Romo didn’t play in his, meaning NBC lost out on the game with the most quarterbacking starpower. In this case, I think the league would still pick Niners-Seahawks if it came down to that game or Bears-Vikings (and if the Ravens had lost Thursday night and next week Steelers-Ravens would have had an edge as well), but only for the same reason they picked Cowboys-Eagles six years ago (with the added factor that the Vikings play on Monday night Week 16), and with the one saving grace that the Rams, the only other team within two games of the wild card, would already be playing in the late afternoon.
Besides that, the good news for Chiefs-Bears is that the Bears won the first meeting with the Vikings and so would need to lose and have the Vikings win to be eliminated from catching the Vikings this week, so the Bears have a better shot at the playoffs than you might think, even if they play a Packers team fighting for a first-round bye at Lambeau this week. The bad news, though, is that the Bears lost to the Rams, and the Rams play on Saturday Week 16, so not only would the Bears have to win their next two and the Rams lose their next two for Bears-Vikings to be a play-in game, a Bears loss and Rams win this week raises the possibility that the Rams will beat the Niners on Saturday and eliminate the Bears from the playoffs – which would also be a problem even with a Bears win if the Vikings win too. Obviously the Rams result would be in before the Bears play no matter what, but the league would likely prefer a game involving two teams having something to play for on Sunday night over a game with only one such team, which is why the question of whether the Bears would still be alive for the playoffs seemed to be the overriding factor. So if the Bears win they need the Vikings or Rams to lose, but the league might also prefer if the Rams won in that situation to make their Week 17 decisions easier.
But wait! The prospect of a Titans-Texans division title game may not have any bearing on whether Saints-Titans gets flexed in, but even though they’re tied with the Steelers for the last wild card now, there’s a decent possibility the Titans may be eliminated by Sunday night! Certainly if the Texans beat them this week, they’d only need to beat Tampa Bay on Saturday to clinch the division, and that would be their fifth conference loss; the Steelers only have three, so if they win this week and next following a Titans loss that would lock up a playoff spot for them. The Bills would then still only have a one-game advantage over the Titans, but they beat the Titans earlier in the season so a win over the Patriots on Saturday would lock up their spot ahead of the Titans. (If the Patriots were to somehow lose out, starting with a loss to the hapless Bungles, and the Titans won their last two, the Titans would claim the conference-games tiebreaker, so the Patriots would also need to take care of business this week to really put the Titans in jeopardy of being eliminated before Sunday night.) If the league’s only options are games involving teams with nothing to play for, my guess is the tentative game bias and the Bears’ name value kicks in again, especially since at least the Titans can be scheduled before or at the same time as the Steelers and at least have something to play for at kickoff. (The Sun-Times suggests the situation is as simple as whether or not the Bears are eliminated, but I consider that the writer’s own parochial Bears-centric speculation, and the article’s suggestion that Saints-Titans would “probably” be flexed in suggests that if the Titans are eliminated the league would find a third game to flex in, but I’m not sure what such a game would be – if both games would be better off being played before or simultaneously with other games I could see the league begging Fox to let them move Cowboys-Eagles into primetime, but that’s not the case with the Bears.)
So ultimately, what went into the decision to delay the flex decision was not merely the prospect of the Bears being eliminated – they might have just flexed in Saints-Titans and been done with it in that case – but the potential combination of either or both of the Bears and Titans being eliminated. That strikes me as a scenario that has at least a chance of happening again in the future, so I see this as a situation much like that time in 2011 a Broncos-Vikings game was moved to Fox due to CBS not having enough production teams to accommodate a flexed-out game, which proved a precursor to crossflexing becoming a formal part of the next contract. In this case, I could see the next contract having explicit provisions for a “six-day hold” being used in Week 16, likely to be used about as often as the early flex, only when the league isn’t guaranteed to have a game involving two teams with playoff spots or positioning to play for by that Sunday night. And at the very least, this is going to affect how I look at Week 16 going forward – and may even create a situation that just might get a Cowboys game flexed out of Sunday night (though the last time the Cowboys were slated for a Week 16 tentative being played the same day as the afternoon slate was in 2009, before the league went to all division games Week 17, and that was a team battling the Eagles for the division lead like this year, but with a good shot at the wild card if they lost, playing a 3-9 Washington team that was putrid no matter what).
Because any change is likely to be announced by the end of the Sunday night game (similarly to how the Week 17 schedule is normally announced), I’m making a complex contingent prediction now rather than make a separate post later, but you might want to keep an eye on my Tweeter Sunday, because my thinking could change as the day’s games develop and as new information comes in. See the Week 17 section below for how the Niners and Seahawks results affect things.
- Final prediction: Kansas City Chiefs @ Chicago Bears (no change) (if two of the Bears winning and Vikings and Rams losing happen, but if the Bears and Rams win and Vikings lose, may also need the Niners to lose and the Seahawks to win), New Orleans Saints @ Tennessee Titans (if the above situation doesn’t happen AND the Titans win or Steelers or Patriots lose), Kansas City Chiefs @ Chicago Bears (no change) (if the Titans lose and Steelers and Patriots win, regardless of what happens with their earlier scenario).
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Steelers-Ravens, Titans-Texans, Bears-Vikings, Cardinals-Rams, Niners-Seahawks. As with last year, percentage chances below are based on ESPN’s FPI projections; I’m using the 93% win probability ESPN had the Ravens having over the Jets at kickoff as the projection for the Thursday night game, which the Ravens’ record above doesn’t reflect.
- Chances of Niners-Seahawks: 68 percent. This may be one year where NBC is actually perfectly happy to air a game where both teams are solidly in the playoffs, even if an actual win-and-in game is out there, considering they might be the two best teams in the NFC yet the winner would receive a first-round bye and likely home field throughout the NFC playoffs while the loser would likely have to travel to either Dallas or Philadelphia and then to the winner’s home. The Niners currently hold a one-game lead but the Seahawks won the first game between them. Both have 3-1 division records but one additional divisional game remaining; if the Niners lose their next two while the Seahawks win their next two, but then the Niners beat the Seahawks, the Niners would hold the conference games tiebreaker… which actually means if the Niners lose this week while the Seahawks win, this game would become guaranteed to decide the division regardless of Week 16’s results, at which point I suspect the league would simply flex it in no matter what. The only things that actually have to happen are, if the Niners win their next two or the Seahawks lose their next two, the other team must do the same. If both teams lose their next two the winner might have to settle for the 3 seed while the Saints and Packers steal the first-round byes, but then if the Rams win out the loser could be out of the playoffs entirely, as the Rams would have split the season series with the Niners and hold the edge in divisional games, though that would depend on the result of the Rams’ own Week 17 game.
- Chances of Titans-Texans: 16 percent. The teams are currently tied at the top of the division and the first game between them is this week. Houston is 3-1 in division while the Titans are 2-2, so a split with the teams tied at the top goes to the Texans; thus the teams would need to be either tied or the Titans would have to have a one-game lead. If the Titans win the first game the only thing that would need to happen is avoiding the combination of a Titans win and Texans loss the next week; if the Texans won, on the other hand, said situation would have to happen. All in all, the chances this is a division title game are just over 50-50, but the chances listed here reflect the likelihood that the league would favor Niners-Seahawks or Bears-Vikings over Titans-Texans, except in one specific situation below.
- Chances of Bears-Vikings: 3 percent. As mentioned earlier, Chicago won the first game between them so the Bears would be win-and-in if they are a game back. The Rams, however, beat the Bears, so the Bears can’t go into the game tied with the Rams for this game to be SNF-worthy; since the Rams currently have a one-game lead over them, that requires the Bears to win their next two and the Rams to lose their next two. Then the Bears just need the Vikings to split. Note that if the Vikings beat the Chargers, their game against the Packers the following week is on Monday night, and the league would likely favor pretty much any other game in that scenario to avoid having to wait until Monday to finalize the Week 17 schedule; as the Vikings are favored in that game, that’s enough to drop this game’s chances a percentage point. Realistically the chances might be even lower because, unlike with Titans-Texans, I haven’t factored in how Niners-Seahawks would be doing.
- Chances of Steelers-Ravens: 1 percent (before the Thursday night game). For this game to have had a chance the Ravens would need to have abruptly lost out, starting with a home loss to the hapless (yet admittedly intermittently giant-killing) Jets, while the Steelers won out, but if that happened the Steelers would have held the divisional tiebreaker.
- Chances of Cardinals-Rams: <1 percent. If the Bears win their next two, the Vikings lose their next two, and the Rams split, all three teams would enter Week 17 tied at 9-6. The Rams would have a win over the Bears and, with a win over the Cardinals, a conference record of 8-4, same as the Vikings would have with a win of their own over the Bears. The common games tiebreaker would then depend on which games the Rams split; if they lost to Dallas we’d have to go to the dreaded strength of victory tiebreaker which has way too many moving parts to rely on, but a win over the Cowboys would give them a tiebreaker over both NFC North teams. This would be a last resort if none of the other situations happen.
- Chances of no suitable game: ~14 percent.