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 17; and week 18. 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 are not affected by Sunday night flexible scheduling (discounting the “flexible scheduling” applied to Saturdays in December in recent years – 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, historically in five out of six weeks of the main flex period (whether or not they received an additional protection with the expansion of the main flex period an additional week is unknown), 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 18, 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 and 2020, respectively, were the first times it showed such games. 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. However, beginning this season, the NFL will also move two games to Saturday to be simulcast on ESPN and ABC.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 11 (November 21):
- Selected game: Pittsburgh @ LA Chargers.
Week 12 (November 28):
- Selected game: Cleveland @ Baltimore.
Week 13 (December 5):
- Selected game: Denver @ Kansas City.
Week 14 (December 12):
- Selected game: Chicago @ Green Bay.
Week 15 (December 19):
- Selected game: New Orleans @ Tampa Bay (presumably).
Week 16 (December 26):
- Tentative game: Washington @ Dallas
- Prospects: 6-6 v. 8-4. The Cowboys have escaped last season’s NFC East mediocrity, while Washington is now second place in the division and in position to potentially receive a wild card, only two games behind the Cowboys. The only way this likely gets flexed out is if the Cowboys could have the division on lockdown and have their seed locked in, and since this is now the third-to-last week of the season, that’s not likely.
- Likely protections: Ravens-Bengals, Bills-Patriots, Steelers-Chiefs, Broncos-Raiders, or nothing (CBS) and Bucs-Panthers, Bears-Seahawks, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: I listed four protection options for CBS this week and somehow all four currently pit two teams at or above .500. Rams-Vikings and Bucs-Panthers are dark horses.
- Analysis: Despite all the available options, and despite the Cowboys being flexed out last year, a game where both teams have something to play for, indeed one with potential division implications, isn’t being flexed out when one of the teams involved is the Cowboys. That just leaves the question of whether CBS will leave Steelers-Chiefs and Broncos-Raiders as their only late games when they might be the least compelling of the potentially protected games from a record standpoint, but while Lamar Jackson v. Joe Burrow and McDermott-Belichick II might be compelling, I don’t know that they knock CBS off Steelers-Chiefs.
- Final prediction: Washington Football Team @ Dallas Cowboys (no change).
Week 17 (January 2):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ Green Bay
- Prospects: 5-7 v. 9-3. Do we seriously have to consider the possibility of this game being flexed out? The Vikings aren’t in the sort of turmoil the Bears were over Thanksgiving, but they did just do what the Bears couldn’t and gave the lowly Lions their first win; they’re still second in the division and a game out of the wild card, but the Packers could cinch up the division as soon as this week, and given the quality of the alternatives it might be difficult for this game to defend its spot. If the Packers don’t have anything to play for (though they’re still in a fight for the first-round bye) a flex-out might be a mortal lock.
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Bengals or Broncos-Chargers (CBS) and Rams-Ravens or Cardinals-Cowboys (FOX).
- Other possible games: Fox’s potentially protected games both involve only teams at 8-4 or better, with Chiefs-Bengals involving a team a game back of that mark. Broncos-Chargers and Raiders-Colts involve teams at .500, Dolphins-Titans and Eagles-Presidents involve teams just below that mark, Falcons-Bills might be saved by the NFC’s mediocrity, and Panthers-Saints is a dark horse.
Week 18 (January 9):
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Games to watch: Pretty much every NFC game except Packers-Lions lol; even Seahawks-Cardinals could come into play if the Niners and Rams are keeping it close enough for the division (Panthers-Bucs might be the next-longest shot as it’s likely to depend on the seeding between division winners). On the AFC side, only the AFC South games are truly out of the running at the moment; the North and West are tightly packed and the East games could see whichever team is in wild card position facing a “win and in, lose and the winner of another game knocks you out” scenario, to say nothing of the Dolphins making a hard charge late.