Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 15

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.

Week 17 (December 29):

  • 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.

62 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 15

  1. Playoff schedule set! (all times ET)

    Wild Card Saturday Jan. 4

    4:35 pm – #5 Bills vs #4 Texans (ABC/ESPN)
    8:15 pm – #6 Titans vs #3 Patriots (CBS)

    Wild Card Sunday Jan. 5

    1:05 pm – #6 Vikings vs #3 Saints (FOX)
    4:40 pm – #5 Eagles vs #4 Eagles (NBC)

    Divisional Saturday Jan. 11

    4:35 pm – Lowest Remaining NFC Seed vs #1 Niners (NBC)
    8:15 pm – Lowest Remaining AFC Seed vs #1 Ravens (CBS)

    Divisional Sunday Jan. 12

    3:05 pm – Highest Remaining AFC Seed vs #2 Chiefs (CBS)
    6:40 pm – Highest Remaining NFC Seed vs #2 Packers (FOX)

  2. Kind of surprised the NFL is not letting FOX get any of the possibly three 49ers-Seahawks matchups, and I also don’t get how the NFL doesn’t put a possible Patriots-Chiefs matchup in primetime. Otherwise, it makes sense; the Wild Card schedule allows for the usual Patriots primetime game and for NBC to get a huge audience for the Golden Globes.

    Anyway, enjoy the playoffs and offseason everyone!!

  3. Thoughts on the playoff schedule (all times ET):

    + Bills-Texans was the obvious choice for the early Saturday game on WC weekend since ESPN has the last pick. Smaller NFL brands, small Buffalo market… you can usually sharpie in the AFC South winner to the early Saturday window in a post-Peyton Manning world

    + Titans-Patriots was the big schedule shakeup. With the Patriots playing on WC weekend for the first time in a decade, CBS was not going to waste an opportunity to put Brady and the Pats in primetime, hence the 8:15 Saturday kickoff (and two AFC games on the same day). I believe if the Pats won and the Chiefs were the #3 seed, Titans-Chiefs would’ve been the 1:00 game early Sunday on CBS

    + As I suspected, the NFL accommodated the NFC West loser by having the Seahawks play the late game Sunday at 4:40 vs the Eagles. Would’ve been unfair to have the Seahawks travel cross country and play on a short week (Saturday) or play an early game (10:00 am PT for Seattle) after the SNF thriller. Interestingly, in back-to-back years NBC gets the 4:40 pm late Sunday slot, as Seahawks-Eagles is a lead-in for the Golden Globes, boosting NBC’s ratings. Perhaps going forward, we should expect NBC to have the late Sunday game in future seasons because of the Golden Globes

    + While FOX has to settle for Vikings-Saints at 1:00 pm early Sunday on WC weekend, FOX gets a big ratings boost by broadcasting the Packers divisional game, late Sunday at 6:40 pm. Perhaps FOX was able to negotiate for that coveted late Sunday Divisional time slot in exchange for CBS getting the Patriots on WC Saturday in primetime. FOX exces are hoping and praying for a Saints-Packers/Brees-Rodgers showdown in round 2… talk about potential ratings gold!

    + As expected, NBC gets an NFC game this year in the divisional playoffs, with the Niners game on NBC at divisional Saturday at 4:35 pm. Niners seemed like a lock for Saturday since FOX I’m sure coveted the Packers for divisional Sunday (bigger NFL brand in Green Bay, bigger ratings with the Packers & Rodgers, and potentially the Saints & Brees too). Funny enough, NBC could get a SNF rematch two weeks later with Seahawks-Niners (not that they wouldn’t mind after their week 17 instant classic)

    + CBS in the divisional round has the Ravens on Saturday at 8:15 and the Chiefs on Sunday at 3:05. The new Sunday divisional time format could be a “win-win” for CBS. They have the Ravens on Saturday primetime (NFL’s best team and hottest attraction with Lamar Jackson), and the Chiefs with Mahomes in a now better time slot for Sunday (3:00 pm instead of the traditional 1:00 pm time). If the Patriots beat the Titans, I wouldn’t be surprised if CBS puts their “A” team of Nantz-Romo on a Patriots-Chiefs game, despite the Ravens having the primetime game Saturday. The new Sunday divisional start times should improve ratings for both CBS and FOX

  4. Jonah:

    While FOX might get shutout from three Seahakws-Niners games this year, ultimately I don’t think they mind because 1) FOX gets the late Sunday divisional slot, and 2) FOX wanted the Packers since they’re the bigger brand and draw more eyeballs. The combination of a potential Saints vs Packers game, Brees vs Rodgers at Lambeau, in the new 6:40 pm ET late time slot on divisional Sunday… has all the makings of breaking TV ratings for the divisional round. FOX is loving this. If anything, FOX will get at least one Seahawks-Niners game next year on TNF or 4:25 pm ET Sunday in the late afternoon window to compensate

    As for why a potential Patriots-Chiefs game would be Sunday instead of Saturday primetime… CBS must feel like a 3:05 pm ET Sunday game would rate just as well as a Saturday 8:15 pm ET broadcast. If this was the traditional divisional Sunday 1:00 pm ET game of years past, perhaps CBS would have the Chiefs on Saturday primetime instead

  5. Was very surprised at some of the moves, with NBC and ESPN/ABC getting the opposite of which games I expected to be on which network. That suggests to me:

    Jeff Lurie (Eagles Owner) IMO was promised the main Sunday slot for any home playoff games because of what happened in Week 12 when the NFL was forced to flex out Seahawks-Eagles from SNF due to what would have been unintended consequences if that had been kept there with FOX keeping both DAL-NE AND GB-SF, with DAL-NE remaining the main game of the DH but moved to 1:00 PM ET and GB-SF heading a regional window pushed back to 4:45 PM ET while except for NYG-CHI cross-flexed to CBS at 1:00, all other CBS games including OAK-NYJ moved to 4:25 PM ET (meaning NYC getting a “double singleheader” on CBS). That could have resulted in a massive amount of complaints to the FCC from viewers of “60 Minutes” that could have led to CBS facing massive fines with there being other unintended consequences as well (noted in other posts on this elsewhere in this). It’s also possible Comcast (NBC’s Parent company) specifically wanted Seahawks-Eagles on NBC because Comcast’s headquarters are in Philadelphia and it’s possible some execs got screwed by the earlier flex-out.

    This also suggests the NFL DID want to move DAL-PHI in Week 16 to SNF as a make-up flex to the Eagles because of WHY SEA-PHI had to be flexed out and may have been willing to give FOX a Week 1 Thursday night game next year as compensation with NBC’s opener moved up to Wednesday because of that (which would have actually allowed for an extra FOX/NFL Thursday night telecast in Week 16 since Week 2 TNF could have been between teams that played Wednesday or Thursday in Week 1). If that was the case, the station managers of NBC affiliates likely objected to the opener being moved to Wednesday next September out of concerns if that Wednesday happened to be an epic day at the US Open Tennis Championships (airing on ESPN or ESPN2), either because of both night matches (one men’s, one women’s quarterfinal) going the distance and/or such in the afternoon happening and causing the night session at Arthur Ashe Stadium to be delayed, it would have THAT still going on well after the NFL season opening game ended, with many flocking to ESPN/ESPN2 immediately after the football game ended, costing NBC stations viewers for late local news and The Tonight Show (and most are well aware through the quarterfinals, ESPN gets at least 1-2 nights where US Open Tennis coverage runs to at least 1:00 AM Eastern Time because of long matches). Thursday on the other hand is the Women’s semifinals and those matches are MUCH more likely to have wrapped up before an NFL game ended on Thursday.

    NBC getting the late slot on Sunday is going to PO Dick Clark Productions (producers of the Golden Globes telecast for NBC) because that means for the second year in a row, the Red Carpet show will not air ahead of the Globes telecast on NBC. I wonder if the NFL has to also write a check to Dick Clark Productions to compensate for that?

    As for CBS having the “early” Sunday window as opposed to the “late” window many of us expected on Divisional weekend, I suspect concerns about fines over “60 Minutes” not airing when it is supposed to, especially given the current political climate we are in played a BIG part in that. It would not surprise me if some at CBS expressed concerns about that, especially given much of “60’s” audience is also in the age group that heavily voted for Trump AND Trump’s personal vendetta against the NFL that dates back to his 1986 attempt to force an NFL-USFL merger when he owned the New Jersey Generals (to where Trump would order an immediate re-instation of the old “Prime Time Access” laws that had it where Sunday from 7:00-8:00 PM (6:00-7:00 CT) had to be news or children’s programming only and sports not allowed to be used for such just to “stick it” to the NFL, not realizing the far-reaching unintended consequences of ordering such). That is something I think played into why CBS gave up the late Sunday slot many of us expected them to take.

    Do agree on FOX taking the Packers for the late Sunday slot Divisional weekend as the Pack are way more attractive on a national basis and either Saints, Eagles or Seahawks-Packers would be way more attractive than any of them playing the 49ers (and especially if it is the Eagles who I think get smoked in SF).

    I’m guessing CBS is getting both prime time Sarturday games this year because FOX had both last year.

  6. And as noted before, what happened in Week 12 to me along with what happened the following two weeks will lead to in future years to there being a “Sunday Night to Monday Night” flex option where the NFL can, especially in weeks where Monday Night Football (or the scheduled SNF game) is NOT in the Eastern Time Zone, move a scheduled Sunday night game to Monday night with ESPN getting an extra doubleheader and the network losing a game flexed to SNF without getting the scheduled SNF game back being compensated in some form the following season. Such an option would be used a maximum of two times per season and ONLY could be used in a situation like we had this year in Weeks 12-14 due to the 49ers coming out of nowhere.

  7. So we have the final schedule. (And we so nearly got to see a different one instead!)

    WC WEEKEND:
    Saturday 4:35: BUF-HOU (ESPN/ABC)
    Saturday 8:15: TEN-NE (CBS)
    Sunday 1:05: MIN-NO (FOX)
    Sunday 4:40: SEA-PHI (NBC)

    DIVISIONAL ROUND:
    Saturday 4:35: @SF (NBC)
    Saturday 8:15: @BAL (CBS)
    Sunday 3:05: @KC (CBS)
    Sunday 6:40: @GB (FOX)

    My prediction could have been worse: the difference between it and the actual schedule was two slot flips (TEN-NE/SEA-PHI, @SF/@BAL) and one network flip (MIN-NO, SEA-PHI).

    NBC got SEA-PHI in the Golden Globes lead-in spot, which is not something I thought would be repeated and now appears to be a new normal. Presumably one involving some wild financial calculations between the NFL, NBC, and Dick Clark Productions over whether red carpet coverage preemption was an acceptable price for lead-in juice for the actual event.

    I’m guessing that FOX likely had a first choice to take @GB for primetime, and the potential @NO divisional game (which we were literally inches from getting) was likely 100% locked into Saturday 4:40 due to the CFB title game. (I’m not buying that there’d have been quite the level of shenanigans to require a Friday spot – if nothing else the date would’ve been booked fully aware of the potential for a Saints home game on that weekend! – but I can believe that it would’ve been locked into the first possible slot. And that the date move was to ensure no possibility of a Saints game AND the CFB title game AND Wizard World over the same four-day weekend. Which, indeed, is what would’ve happened if the CFB title game was the week after the semi-finals.) Of course, with SF squeaking through, they get to host a game that weekend instead, but with the status of “the other NFC game” with a timeslot lock and NBC assignment.

    CBS absolutely the big winners here, with two primetime games and a presumptive NE-KC rematch in a slot that will funnel into a start-on-time 60 Minutes. We helpfully have a predictive measure of this situation from when the PIT-KC playoff game three years ago got moved into primetime for weather reasons, which has been credited as the catalyst for this new schedule in the first place; FOX had the 4:40 game on both Sundays that year, and their comedy lineup wasn’t that much weaker on divisional Sunday against another game than it was the week before with no such competition. However, CBS’ 60 Minutes will start, after a long postgame show, 20 minutes after kickoff at Lambeau – whereas FOX started The Simpsons that night around 8:15 and hence actually beat out the 8:20 kick for that PIT-KC game, so I’m guessing CBS don’t get anything like the full benefit of the giganto-lead-in. (But it also won’t be anything like as close to zero as people will probably expect.)

  8. Dave:

    I do think if the Seahawks had won that game, the CFP Committee and elected officials would have immediately been on the phone to the NFL ordering the Saints game be played Friday night so they have complete control of the Superdome beginning Saturday as well as making sure everyone coming for the CFP Title game was able to fully experience it. College Football is looked at much differently from the NFL (as many think college football is “pure”) and is more important to many (there are many areas where college football is actually bigger than the NFL). If that had been the case, the Divisional schedule probably is this:

    Friday: @Saints, 9:10 PM ET, FOX (late kickoff to avoid complaints from the west coast)

    Saturday: @Packers, 7:20 PM ET, NBC (only Saturday game, starting earlier to assure Saturday Night Live starts on time)

    Sunday: @Ravens, 2:35 PM ET AND @Chiefs, 8:25 PM ET, both CBS. Games would have been scheduled that way to assure “60 Minutes” airs when scheduled in the Eastern and Central Time Zones and minimize potential complaints to the FCC (full pre-game before Game 1, short pre-game before Game 2).

  9. tired of reading Walt’s inane comment? Come check out King Kent’s assault on the College Bowls and NFL Playoffs. Tell ’em Walt sent you and the first winner is on the house. Kent Elola sports on Facebook

  10. @ Shiny Dave and @ Jay … both of you mentioned some surprise at NBC getting the late Sunday Wild Card spot for the second year.

    Remember when NBC didn’t get a SNF game Week 17 of the 2017 season? I wonder if this is the compensation for that loss. It may have been too late to sideline the red carpet show for the 2018 GG, but then NBC had enough time to move it for 2019 and 2020. I wonder if it will remain this way through the end of the current TV contracts …

  11. Eric:

    NBC getting the late Sunday WC game is all about providing a lead-in for the Golden Globes to give the awards show a ratings boost. This has nothing to do with NBC not having a SNF game week 17 back in 2017. I think NBC execs have realized the importance of stacking two important properties (NFL and the Golden Globes) back-to-back for better ratings. Like Shiny Dave mentioned, expect this to be the new normal for NBC going forward in the WC round, broadcasting the late Sunday game before the Golden Globes. The more interesting WC broadcast battle that may happen is whether FOX or CBS gets the Saturday primetime slot at 8:15 pm ET in future seasons, if there’s a rotation of some kind, if ABC/ESPN gets any slice of playoff primetime etc.

    Walt:

    The idea of the Saints (if they were the #2 seed) hosting their playoff game on a Friday (along with your past ideas such as Cowboys-Eagles week 16 flexed to SNF, the complicated week 12 reverse DH maneuver for Cowboys-Patriots etc.) is ridiculous. Love your passion for football and broadcasting… but your Saints scenario was never happening since playoffs times are set way in advance by the NFL (not to mention the competitive disadvantage one of the winning NFC wild card teams would face with a Sunday to Friday turnaround). Most likely, the Saints would’ve been in the 49ers spot now, playing the 4:35 pm ET slot early Saturday of divisional weekend on NBC

    Shiny Dave:

    I agree with you that CBS was a big winner when the playoff schedule was set. As evidenced by the Titans-Patriots ratings, that matchup was the most watched AFC wild card game since Steelers-Broncos (the Tim Tebow OT game) back in Jan. 2012, and highest rated Saturday WC game since 2016’s Steelers-Bengals. However, I’m sure CBS is disappointed to see Tom Brady and the Pats knocked out early. A potential Patriots-Chiefs divisional round game would’ve pulled a huge number for CBS. I’m sure FOX would’ve preferred the Saints winning too for their ratings, but I don’t think Seahawks-Packers is a huge drop off considering the matchup of Wilson vs. Rodgers. Plus the new 6:40 pm ET time slot will help FOX’s ratings too

  12. Jay:

    If the Saints had been the #2 seed, both NFC games (MIN-SEA and SF-PHI) would have been on Saturday and both AFC games (unchanged) would have been on Sunday to accommodate a Friday Divisional game for the Saints that I think CFP and local officials would have demanded the Saints be Friday to clear out all hotel space ahead of those arriving for LSU-Clemson on Monday. FOX would have gotten their divisional game in prime time on Friday (again, 9:10 ET so western affiliates don’t complain, NBC likely on Saturday (since the Packers game would likely have been the only Saturday game with that moved up to 7:15 ET as noted to best assure Saturday Night Live starts on time) and the two CBS games as noted at 2:30 and 8:25 ET to assure 60 Minutes airs in most of the country when it normally does..

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