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 16 (December 22):
- Selected game: Kansas City @ Chicago. This game was announced as keeping its spot while the late-afternoon games were still going, and the Vikings won to knock the Bears out of the playoffs while the Steelers lost to ensure the Titans can’t be eliminated by a Steelers win alone next week. One may surmise that NBC didn’t want to wait until after their Sunday night game was over to confirm next week’s game, nor did the league want to face the prospect of waiting for the Sunday night game the following week to decide the Week 17 game, so maybe game-announcing logistics have a bigger impact on Week 16 selections than I thought.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Titans-Texans, Niners-Seahawks. I had thought if the Niners took two losses while the Seahawks won two, but then the Niners beat the Seahawks, the Niners would hold the edge on conference games, meaning the league might as well have flexed it in right off the bat as soon as the Niners lost, certainly once the Steelers’ loss ensured Titans-Texans couldn’t be a loser-out game. But looking at the standings last night shows both teams with identical conference records, so I don’t know if I miscalculated (or didn’t calculate at all, or maybe considered this past week’s non-division opponents as non-conference ones), looked at the wrong column, or looked at wrong information for some reason. In any case, both teams’ records are so strong that looking at strength-of-victory is actually relatively simple, though the effects are anything but.
- Niners-Seahawks will be picked if: The Niners win OR the Seahawks lose OR Washington and the Saints win while the Falcons and Eagles lose OR any two of the results in the last condition happen AND the Packers beat the Vikings. Both teams won both their “same-rank” games (the only games they don’t have in common with each other), with Seattle beating the Eagles and Vikings while the Niners beat Washington and Green Bay. Both teams beat an NFC South team the other lost to, with the Seahawks beating the Falcons and the Niners topping the Saints; and divisional opponents aren’t a factor, as each would have gone 2-0 against the Cardinals and 1-1 against the Rams. All told, the Niners’ unique victories have a combined record of 25-17, while the Seahawks’ have a combined record of 22-20, but because Washington is such a dumpster fire (in more ways than one), if the teams finish tied on strength of victory the Seahawks would likely have the edge on strength of schedule. The big problem here is the decently high likelihood that this could come down to the Monday night game; if that happens and Titans-Texans is an option, expect the league to go that way. (At least the Seahawks would still be jockeying with the Saints for home-field advantage even if they were to have strength-of-victory locked up, while the Niners would be jockeying with the NFC North loser for wild-card seeding and a potential trip to Dallas or Philadelphia. Otherwise if all of the above results went the Seahawks’ way, the Saints and NFC North teams might have to be joined in the late time slot by the NFC East teams.)
- Titans-Texans will be picked if: The Texans lose AND the Titans win AND the Niners lose AND the Seahawks win AND not enough of the above-mentioned results happen, or the Packers-Vikings game is the last one that needs to happen. If the Steelers win this week and lose Week 17, they would hold the conference-games tiebreaker over the Titans, but the Texans would hold the edge over the Steelers. On the other hand, both these teams beat the Chiefs head-to-head, so all it would take is for the Chiefs and Steelers to lose and suddenly there’s a real risk this just determines home field for a rematch the following week.
Last year I talked about my commenters’ wild speculation that NBC might be given two games to make up for not having any game the year before. As that’s become a significantly more distant memory (and as my tolerance for far-fetched theories has eroded), I won’t go into that too deeply this year, though the NFC East games would be a logical choice for a regional/reverse-mirror split. The AFC East teams may also be a possibility, as might the NFC North though that depends on the Monday night game, though if the Vikings lose Monday night Cardinals-Rams could be paired with Bears-Vikings. Steelers-Ravens and Texans-Titans are only an option if a) the Ravens have clinched the 1 seed (fairly simple, requiring only a Ravens win or Patriots and Chiefs losses) and b) the Texans also have nothing to play for, i.e., the Chiefs win (thus requiring the Ravens win) while the Texans and Titans both lose.