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. I’m assuming, anyway; the NFL’s press release doesn’t call it a “final” Week 11 schedule, but it does move Packers-Colts to the late slot of Fox’s doubleheader as I suspected might happen. If Cowboys-Vikings doesn’t move it’ll be interesting to see the regional split and which game gets Buck and Aikman.
Week 12 (November 29):
- Tentative game: Chicago @ Green Bay
- Prospects: 5-4 v. 6-2. After last year’s disappointing campaign, the Bears are back to their form from two years ago, and these two teams retain a significant lead over the rest of the division. NBC could end up airing the other half of this rivalry in Week 17 to decide the division.
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Bucs (CBS) and Cardinals-Patriots, Niners-Rams, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games, though the NFC East tire fire means the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game isn’t taking away any teams with winning records, and in fact Ravens-Steelers accounts for the only two teams above .500 playing on Thanksgiving. Titans-Colts, which could decide the AFC South, is the best unprotected game; Niners-Rams is next best with Saints-Broncos and Cardinals-Patriots as dark horses.
- Analysis: The gap between the Bears and Packers feels bigger than it is; the Bears are only a half-game out of the wild card but don’t have anywhere near the buzz of the Bucs or the NFC West teams, and if the way the Vikings played against the Lions is any indication of how they’ll play with Dalvin Cook healthy they may end up passing the Bears for second in the division. By contrast, the one-game gap between the Titans and Colts belies the importance of their series, with the first game coming this Thursday night; with the Texans and Jaguars having as many wins between them as the Colts have losses, there’s less of a risk of an interloper coming in, so this series really does feel like it’ll decide the division if either team (especially the Titans) sweeps it. Still, Titans-Colts doesn’t have anywhere near the name value of the Bears-Packers rivalry, and CBS would not be happy about losing both halves of the divisional matchup to different primetime packages. Best case scenario for Titans-Colts is probably 6-3 v. 6-3 with a Colts win Thursday, while Bears-Packers going to 7-2 v. 5-5 raises the prospect of the Packers putting the division on lockdown and would mean the Vikings picked up a road win over the Bears that moved them to 4-5 and might suggest they really are the second best team in the division with Cook healthy. Still, for the reasons mentioned above I don’t think the league would pull the flex even in that circumstance, and I certainly don’t think they’d flex in a 5-5 Niners team either. But neither would I be completely surprised if they did flex in Titans-Colts in that best-case scenario; I just don’t think it fits their past history when CBS can probably send it to a good chunk of the country (though not New York or Los Angeles) as their early DH anchor.
- Final prediction: Chicago Bears @ Green Bay Packers (no change).
Week 13 (December 6):
- Tentative game: Denver @ Kansas City
- Prospects: 3-5 v. 8-1. Continues to be worryingly lopsided, as the Chiefs might have the division on lockdown with a win over the Raiders in that Sunday night game.
- 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, and Lions-Bears lurks as a dark horse. Lobbyists-Steelers and Giants-Seahawks could also have outside chances depending on how the NFC East tire fire shakes out.
Week 14 (December 13):
- Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Buffalo
- Prospects: 8-0 v. 7-2. Last year this game was the beneficiary of a flex; this year it could pit two of the three best teams in the AFC.
- Likely protections: Colts-Raiders if anything (CBS) and Saints-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: I’ve been neglecting Chiefs-Dolphins as an option, but assuming I have the protections right and Colts-Raiders is actually protected, the next-best options are Vikings-Bucs and Packers-Lions, both involving 3-5 teams. 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: 4-5 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 might affect Lions-Titans and Bills-Broncos more than Panthers-Packers. Regardless, Fox’s unprotected game(s) 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: 6-2 v. 7-2 with both teams strong enough to win their respective divisions and potentially at least reach their respective conference championship games.
- 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, Vikings-Lions, Steelers-Browns, Packers-Bears, Dolphins-Bills, Seahawks-Niners, Cardinals-Rams, Raiders-Broncos.