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.
Week 16 (December 26):
- Selected game: Washington @ Dallas (presumably).
Week 17 (January 2):
- Tentative game: Minnesota @ Green Bay
- Prospects:: 6-7 v. 10-3. The Vikings aren’t really bad enough to normally warrant flexing the game out, out of the wild card only on tiebreakers and firmly in second in the division, but the gap between them and the Packers is wide enough that it might still be concerningly lopsided. That gap also means a Packer win or Viking loss either of the next two weeks locks up the division for the Packers before this game is played, but the Packers are still in a three-way fight for the first round bye. It wouldn’t normally be a cause for concern until you look at the alternatives.
- Likely protections: Chiefs-Bengals or Broncos-Chargers (CBS) and Rams-Ravens or Cardinals-Cowboys (FOX).
- Other possible games: Fox’s potentially protected games involve only teams at 8-5 or better and pit teams a game apart, and CBS’s games aren’t chopped liver either, though Chiefs-Bengals is probably off-limits with the Chiefs being flexed in earlier this year maxing them out on primetime appearances. Dolphins-Titans, Raiders-Colts, and Falcons-Bills are getting lost in the shuffle, and Eagles-Presidents is stuck behind even those games.
- Analysis: If Vikings-Packers isn’t flexed out, Rams-Ravens at 9-4 v. 8-5 would normally be a lock to remain the featured game in the late doubleheader window, but Fox has to be, at the very least, very tempted to showcase a game featuring the Cowboys in a battle of division leaders when one game separates all four NFC division leaders. And that’s the factor that might get this game flexed out: that both games are too good for one of them to be stuck in the early window. Being the featured game in the early window isn’t as bad for a game’s distribution as the singleheader (as home markets for teams in early singleheader games still get an early doubleheader game, but the reverse usually isn’t the case), and the early window on either network isn’t anywhere near as disastrous as the late singleheader window, where the league has bent over backwards to try and keep big games from ending up in the past, so you wouldn’t expect the league to go the extra mile for these games. A Vikings loss on Monday night at Soldier Field to a Bears team that’s lost seven of eight, with the win coming against the then-winless Lions in a Thanksgiving game the Bears nearly let slip, with the Lions finishing the job against the Vikings the following week, though? At that point you might start to wonder whether this game is worth keeping given the alternatives. Packers-Vikings isn’t the iconic rivalry Packers-Bears is, the Vikings would only be a game ahead of the Bears (and with the middle two teams in the NFC East playing each other, a loss would put the Vikings a full game back of the wild card), and taking that result with the teams’ respective results at Ford Field would leave you with the impression the Bears might be the better team, even with the win coming at home for them.
As for what might replace it, I think the game Fox allow(ed) NBC to have is the only real choice; Broncos-Chargers could have the same pair of records as Rams-Ravens but the latter has more star power. What may throw a wrench into things is, if Fox prefers (or preferred) Cardinals-Cowboys, the league may want to make things as logistically easy as possible and allow even a 6-8 Vikings team against the Packers to keep their spot, as of the options available if Fox keeps both games, having both games in the late window and letting Eagles-Presidents anchor the early window might be the least bad option in terms of distribution… but unless the league wants to pull another six-day hold out of their hat, there’d be a chance that either NFC East team could eliminate the Vikings from the playoffs entirely by the time the game is played, especially if it’s the rematch in the aforementioned Eagles-Presidents game that could finish the job. (And if it’s Washington, the league would likely be loath to use a six-day hold that’s likely to depend on the result of the Sunday night game, especially if no other 6-7 team joins them.)
- Final prediction: Los Angeles Rams @ Baltimore Ravens (if the Vikings lose on Monday night and Fox protected Cardinals-Cowboys), Arizona Cardinals @ Dallas Cowboys (if the Vikings lose on Monday night and Fox didn’t protect it or is willing/coerced into giving it up), Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers (no change) (if the Vikings win on Monday night). (If the league does pull a six-day hold out of their hat I’ll assume Rams-Ravens is the game under consideration unless I see reports otherwise.)
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 and Panthers-Bucs; even Bears-Vikings and Football Team-Giants could come into play if the team in playoff contention would lose a tiebreaker to the Saints-Falcons winner. (Panthers-Bucs is likely out of the running for SNF, even if the Panthers make a late-season playoff push, as the first-round bye is likely to be the only thing the Bucs have to play for and there’s no real way for them to have a guaranteed bye-with-win, no-bye-with-loss game without creating a more enticing option, but both it and Packers-Lions could be Saturday night options depending on the tiebreaker situation.) On the AFC side, the field seems to be narrowing to Colts-Jaguars, Steelers-Ravens, Jets-Bills, Bengals-Browns, and Chargers-Raiders. The Colts, like the Bills (and to a lesser extent the Chargers), could find themselves in a situation where they’d be in with a win but bumped out in favor of the Bengals-Browns winner with a loss; on the other hand, the Titans and Patriots are in similar situations as the Bucs and Packers, and as the Raiders fade down the stretch the West might have the wrong pair of games to produce a potential Sunday night game, unless the Broncos go on enough of a tear and the Chiefs slip enough to make the game between them a division title game (if the Chiefs win and Broncos lose this week the Broncos would be eliminated from the division). Next week’s post could come out very late as I try to sort through the permutations surrounding 11 games before I even get to picking Saturday games.