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 16 (December 27):
- Selected game: Tennessee @ Green Bay.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Bidens-Eagles, Cowboys-Giants, Steelers-Browns, Packers-Bears, Dolphins-Bills, Seahawks-Niners, Cardinals-Rams. Vikings-Lions could have wild card implications but even if everything goes right to have them both tied with the Cardinals going in, the tiebreaker between the Vikings and Cardinals if they both win would be decided by strength of victory. Because the Vikings would also hold the division tiebreaker over the Lions, the Bucs could lose out while the Vikings won their next two, and if the Lions beat the Vikings the Bucs would still hold the edge in seeding thanks to the win they just picked up over the Vikings, before even getting to the Cardinals (and with the Bucs losing tiebreakers to both the Rams and Cardinals, if the league has to take a game that only matters for seeding they’ll take the game where both teams have something to play for instead of just one). Note that all these games need at least four not-always-likely results to go their way over both of the next two weeks; between that and NBC getting its Thanksgiving night game bumped to a non-holiday Wednesday afternoon, it definitely feels like a real possibility that NBC gets two interdependent games (which either the NFC East or, much less desirably, AFC South could oblige them), or at least one game in one of the afternoon time slots as was going to happen to Ravens-Steelers at one point. (I even had one person on Twitter vouch for our resident crazy theory-meister’s idea of moving one of the games the day after Christmas to NBC Christmas night, but that would be awfully short notice with it being highly unlikely all these games are eliminated after next week.) All percentage chances based on ESPN’s FPI Matchup Predictor as of Thursday at about 4 PM PT.
- Chances of Bidens-Eagles: 23 percent. If the Eagles make up a game on both of the teams currently ahead of them in the division the next two weeks, this becomes a division title game – and that’s very possible, as Washington and the Giants are underdogs to the Seahawks and Ravens respectively, while the Eagles have a puncher’s chance in each of their next two games. Alternately, if the Cowboys win their next two and the other three teams in the division all lose their next two, the Cowboys enter Week 17 tied for the division lead with Washington a game ahead of the Giants, and wins by the Eagles and Giants give the division to the Giants with a better head-to-head record against the division’s non-Eagles teams by virtue of only splitting with the Cowboys, making this a win-and-in, lose-and-out game for Washington.
- Chances of Cardinals-Rams: 19 percent. The Rams beat the Cardinals the first time they played so they’d have to lose their next two and the Cardinals win their next two for the winner to have an outright lead over the other, but that would include Rams-Seahawks so the Seahawks would have at worst a game’s lead over the Rams for the division lead, and if the Seahawks lost this week to Washington that would mean their game against the Niners would determine whether or not they win the division (see below, though even then the same logic I used to disqualify Falcons-Bucs might apply, which would bump this up half a percentage point; technically right now it’s at 19.48%). However, if both teams had the same result in their remaining division games, and the Rams lost and Cardinals won the other (or conversely, if the Rams lost and Cardinals won their division games and had the same result in their non-division games), the Cardinals would hold the division tiebreaker with a win; if those division-game results are wins and the Seahawks lost to Washington this coming week that would make this a division title game.
- Chances of Cowboys-Giants: 7 percent. Washington swept the Cowboys so Dallas’ only shot at winning the division is to win out and have Washington lose out, and probably have the Giants lose at least once before this game. On the other hand, the Giants swept the Football Team so any situation where those two teams are tied a half-game ahead of the Eagles would be a win-and-in, lose-and-likely-out game for the Giants. That just requires the Giants and Eagles to win one more game each than Washington.
- Chances of Steelers-Browns: 4 percent. The Steelers have a win in hand so if they have a one-game lead the Browns would need to hold other tiebreakers. If the Steelers beat the Bengals they’ll have the edge in division games, so at minimum the Steelers need to lose that game. If the Jets beat the Browns the Browns would have the edge in common games, but if the Browns beat the Giants the Steelers would have the edge in conference games, so the Browns would actually have to lose at least once. If the Steelers lose out and the Browns lose to the Giants but beat the Jets and Steelers it comes down to strength of victory; the Steelers have wins over the Giants, Broncos, and Ravens twice; the Browns would have beaten the Colts, Bengals (twice to the Steelers’ once), and Jets as well as Washington, giving the Steelers’ unique victories a combined 26-26 record to the Browns’ 17-34-1, so the Browns couldn’t even catch the Steelers in SoV, much less clinch the edge over them, in two weeks (not least because the Browns’ own results over the New York teams would hurt their own cause). So at minimum the Steelers need to lose their next two and the Browns need to beat the Giants, and then the result of the Jets game doesn’t matter… except that if the Ravens win out while the Steelers lose out and the Browns go 2-1, the Steelers would win the division with a 3-1 record against the other two teams, so if the Browns lose to the Jets the Ravens need to lose at least once. All told this is the simplest of the situations, but it would require a complete collapse on the Steelers’ part, particularly a loss to the lowly Burrow-less Bengals, so it’s highly unlikely.
- Chances of Dolphins-Bills: 3 percent. The chances for this one looked pretty strong not too long ago, but now the Bills have opened up a two-game lead with three to go, a win over the Dolphins in hand, and the edge in common games, so the Bills would have to lose their next two and the Dolphins win their next two. Notably, the Bills play on Monday night against the Patriots Week 16 so the league would probably prefer to go with something else if something else is available and desirable, though if nothing is this game could wind up on NBC anyway in the afternoon.
- Chances of Seahawks-Niners: <1 percent. See Cardinals-Rams above. The Niners can’t catch the Seahawks or Rams. If the Seahawks beat the Rams Week 16, they would have split the season series with both the Rams and Cardinals; if the Seahawks lost the other two games and the Cardinals won out the Cardinals would have the better division record. As for the Rams, if both teams had the same result this coming week and the Rams won and Seahawks lost Week 17, the Rams would have a better conference record at 9-3 while the Seahawks could do no better than 8-4; if both teams had the same result Week 17 the Week 16 winner would have the division tiebreaker. If the Seahawks are sitting at 10-5 with the Rams and Cardinals tied at 9-6, the Seahawks would win the division by beating the Niners but lose it with a loss – unless the Rams and Cardinals tied. As such this is probably a last-resort option at best (even assuming the league would take this game over Rams-Cardinals, which is a big assumption), though since the Cardinals beating the Niners would eliminate the Niners from the playoffs it could still be worth it from a competitive, if not television, standpoint. As for the possibility this is a win-and-in, lose-and-out game for the Niners, the Lions would hold any tiebreaker over them and if the Niners beat the Cowboys and the Vikings and Niners have the same result against the Saints and Seahawks respectively, the tie would be broken by strength of victory, so the Niners are sort of in the same situation as the Bucs but almost in reverse.
- Chances of Packers-Bears: <1 percent. With the Packers clinching the division they’d need to have nothing to play for regardless of other results, first of all. The Bears’ only division win was the season opener against the Lions with a visit to Minnesota this coming week; if they win both of their remaining division games they’d win the division tiebreaker to the Lions but, if the Vikings beat the Lions, lose it to the Vikings; the Bears would also hold any tiebreaker over the Cardinals. All told, the Bears would need to be tied with the Lions and a game ahead of the Vikings while also being at least tied with the Cardinals, meaning the Lions would have to win their next two, the Cardinals and Vikings would both have to lose their next two, and the Bears would have to lose to the lowly Jaguars after beating the Vikings, all while the Packers clinch the #1 seed, which, since the Saints play the Vikings, means not only would the Packers have to win their next two the Saints would have to lose to the Chiefs. Factor in that the Lions are pretty big underdogs in each of their next two games, and that this game probably won’t be picked if there’s a division title game or if Cowboys-Giants is an option, and the unrounded chances for this game are a whopping .0026%.
- Chances of no suitable game: ~44 percent. I’m actually surprised it’s that low, lower than two years ago, but Bidens-Eagles and Cardinals-Rams alone have a combined 42 percent chance – with the caveat that a good chunk of Cardinals-Rams’ chances are just for wild card seeding.