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 in recent years and Week 15 this year – 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 2018 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 22):
- Selected game: Kansas City @ Las Vegas.
Week 12 (November 29):
- Selected game (presumably): Chicago @ Green Bay.
Week 13 (December 6):
- Tentative game: Denver @ Kansas City
- Prospects: 3-6 v. 8-1. Continues to be worryingly lopsided, as the Chiefs might have the division on lockdown with a win over the Raiders Sunday night.
- Likely protections: Eagles-Packers (CBS) and Football Team-Steelers or Rams-Cardinals (FOX).
- Other possible games: I don’t think the Browns have ever been flexed into a Sunday night game, but Browns-Titans has a good chance to do it, though if Rams-Cardinals is unprotected it might have the edge; Lions-Bears has lurked as a dark horse but might be too far behind the other contenders or the playoff picture at this point, especially with the Bears on bye this week. Lobbyists-Steelers and Giants-Seahawks pit actually good teams with NFC East teams that somehow still have a shot at making the playoffs.
- Analysis: All four of the teams among the two main flex candidates have 6-3 records. Ultimately, what gets flexed in depends more on what Fox protected than what the teams in question do this week; the Rams and Cardinals don’t have the name value of an NFC East or North team and might have the two weakest names in their own division, but they’re still significantly bigger market teams than the Browns or Titans, and that likely applies even if Browns-Titans is 7-3 v. 7-3 and Rams-Cardinals is 6-4 v. 6-4. Also worth noting that while Browns-Titans should get decent distribution in the CBS early slot, Rams-Cardinals is pinned to the late singleheader and I’m not even sure Fox would favor it in home markets of CBS early games over Giants-Seahawks. On that note, I don’t think the league would flex in either of the NFC East games even though both have more name value than either of the other contenders, as that would make a mockery of the stated purpose of flex scheduling and Rams-Cardinals should have enough name value to overcome it – though tellingly, I’m not that sure about Browns-Titans. I wouldn’t completely rule out the league flexing in Lobbyists-Steelers (if the No Names beat the Bengals this week) or Giants-Seahawks (if they don’t) if Rams-Cardinals is protected, but it might be difficult to justify if Browns-Titans is sitting at 7-3 v. 7-3, and the former game would put the Steelers on SNF in back-to-back weeks while the Seahawks’ record is the same as the Browns and Titans so favoring Giants-Seahawks, even with the NFC East tire fire, wouldn’t be a good look.
- Final prediction: Los Angeles Rams @ Arizona Cardinals (if Fox didn’t protect it); Cleveland Browns @ Tennessee Titans (if they did).
Week 14 (December 13):
- Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Buffalo
- Prospects: 8-0 v. 7-3. Starting to become a skosh lopsided, but only three teams would be less lopsided opponents for the unbeaten Steelers, and the Bills still lead the division and represent one of the biggest obstacles for the Steelers going unbeaten the rest of the way.
- Likely protections: Colts-Raiders if anything (CBS) and Saints-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: Chiefs-Dolphins is probably the best option even if Colts-Raiders is unprotected, but Vikings-Bucs could involve two teams over .500 in a couple weeks, and Packers-Lions remains a dark horse. Snyders-Niners and Cardinals-Giants have the same NFC East factor going for it as last week.
Week 15 (December 20):
- Tentative game: San Francisco @ Dallas
- Prospects: 4-6 v. 2-7, but with the NFC East tire fire the Cowboys are still within striking distance of the division race, and it might be a sign of the apocalypse if they were ever flexed out of Sunday night.
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Saints (CBS) and Seahawks-Football Team, Eagles-Cardinals, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Assuming the games that have been set aside for a potential move to Saturday can’t be protected, which at this point mainly affects Lions-Titans. Regardless, Fox’s unprotected game(s), plus Browns-Giants, are probably the best options just because of the NFC East tire fire (and you already have that division’s most attractive team), with Patriots-Dolphins and Bears-Vikings also having outside shots.
Week 16 (December 27):
- Tentative game: Tennessee @ Green Bay
- Prospects: 6-3 v. 7-2. One team is fighting to make the playoffs (potentially as the division winner), the other for the #1 seed.
- Likely protections: Colts-Steelers, Rams-Seahawks, or nothing (CBS) and Eagles-Cowboys (FOX).
- Other possible games: Among the games chosen for a potential move to Saturday, Dolphins-Raiders is notable for involving two teams above .500, with Niners-Cardinals and Bucs-Lions involving teams not too far behind the mark. Nonetheless, CBS’ unprotected games (as this is the most likely week for them to leave unprotected) are still the best options if the Titans and/or Packers collapse, with Giants-Ravens as a dark horse given the situation in the NFC East.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Falcons-Bucs, Bidens-Eagles, Cowboys-Giants, Vikings-Lions, Steelers-Browns, Packers-Bears, Dolphins-Bills, Seahawks-Niners, Cardinals-Rams.