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 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 receives 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. In theory, 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 NBC has never shown them. 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.
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Possible games: Browns-Ravens, Eagles-Trumps, Colts-Titans, Jaguars-Texans, Bears-Vikings, Cowboys-Giants, Bengals-Steelers, Cardinals-Seahawks. With the Bears locking up the NFC North with their win over the Packers, the only way we don’t enter uncharted territory of some kind this year is if there’s no Sunday night game again. I had this mostly written on Tuesday and could have posted it if I hadn’t decided to include a section for my commenters’ “two regionalized games” theory, but then I had to fly up to Seattle on Thursday and didn’t have good Internet access until Saturday night, which makes this especially out of date with how much impact Saturday’s games were set to have on what games could be taken (with teams in the two most straightforward games playing each other in the early game, and the occupants of the two wild card spots entering the week, both of them with chances to steal their respective divisions, on the other). I’ve included most of what I wrote/would have written on Tuesday, but have applied strikethrough on those scenarios that no longer apply…
and Saturday’s results officially mean the only way for NBC to be able to put on only one game is if one team has nothing to play for.EDIT: It was pointed out to me on Twitter that a Steelers loss could still set up Colts-Titans for the wild card; the AFC North loser in that scenario could do no better than 9-6-1, whereas if the Colts win the Colts-Titans winner would be 10-6. Eagles-Trumps will be picked if: The Vikings lose AND the Eagles and Trumps win AND (the Seahawks win OR the Seahawks have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over Washington). This game now represents the most straightforward potential scenario for the league (with the wrinkle that a Seahawks loss to the Cardinals would put them even in common games with the other Washington, opening up an outside shot for Washington to get in even with a loss). The game got over the biggest, most unlikely hump in its way with the Eagles’ upset of the Rams, but of the four results that need to happen this coming week, the Eagles winning is the only one favored to happen, and by only two points over the Texans.
- Colts-Titans will be picked if:
The Ravens(EDIT: or Steelers) lose AND the Titans win AND (the Colts win OR the Colts have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Ravens). With this one, on the other hand, all three needed outcomes (one being the Ravens loss) were favored by Vegas. Cowboys-Giants could be picked if: The Cowboys lose AND the Eagles, Vikings, and Trumps all win. This is the closest thing to a straight-up game for the division crown, even if the Giants have nothing to play for except draft position. The Viking win is solely to preclude Eagles-Trumps from being picked. Cardinals-Seahawks could be picked if: The Seahawks lose AND the Eagles, Vikings, Cowboys, and Trumps all win. The Seahawks would hold tiebreakers over both Washington and the Eagles with a win. If the Cowboys lose out and the Eagles-Trumps winner is the NFC East champion, the Cowboys would still hold the tiebreaker over the Eagles-Trumps loser, and the Seahawks beat the Cowboys head-to-head, so the Seahawks would still be going to the playoffs with a loss (not to mention if NBC has to take a game that only matters to one team, they will take the Cowboys 11 times out of 10).
- Jaguars-Texans could be picked if: The Texans lose AND the Colts, Ravens, and Titans all win. Even here, if the Colts and Titans somehow tie the Texans could be left with nothing to play for, so the league could well decide to go with a more esoteric choice like…
- Browns-Ravens could be picked if: The Steelers, Ravens, and Titans all win AND (the Colts win OR the Colts have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Ravens),
OR the Ravens, Titans, Colts, and Dolphins all lose AND the Ravens have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Colts. Note that in the “all losing” scenario, the Browns would probably also have to tie or lose or else a Colts-Titans tie would keep their own playoff hopes alive, which could mean Browns-Ravens can be played no later than that game.As mentioned last week, the Steelers need to win in the “all winning” scenario to avoid the risk that the Ravens might have clinched the division before Sunday night even rolls around. On that note…
- Bengals-Steelers could be picked if: The Steelers lose AND the Ravens, Colts, and Titans all win. Suddenly, not only would the Steelers have surrendered the division lead, they’d have to beat the Bengals to make the playoffs at all. Even if the Colts and Titans were to tie in this scenario, the Colts would have the edge in conference record over a losing Steelers team.
- Bears-Vikings could be picked if: The Bears lose AND the Cowboys lose AND the Rams win AND (
the Vikings, Eagles, Trumps, and Seahawks all win ORthe Vikings, Eagles, and Trumps all lose). This can no longer be an NFC North title game, but it could still determine whether the Vikings go to the playoffs, so long as the Bears have nothing to play for no matter when the game is played. The Bears would lose a tiebreaker to the Cowboys and outright beat the Rams, so that means they’d need two-game gaps on either side of them to the other division winners. The Bears are playing the mighty 49ers while the Cowboys are playing the nearly-as-mighty Buccaneers. This seems decidedly unlikely (as is Cowboys-Giants above).
As mentioned last week, some of my commenters think that if no single game is suitable for a move to Sunday night, the league could give NBC two games, making up for the lack of a Sunday night game last year, which NBC could then regionalize, possibly with a reverse mirror on NBCSN. I see the logic in it but it would be a logistical nightmare (at least the Broncos have been eliminated from the playoffs so nothing depends on the Monday night game) and while the lack of any known provision for it doesn’t mean much given the league’s propensity to bend its own rules in the past, nonetheless I’ll believe it when I see it. Still, just for fun, let’s see what scenarios would lend themselves to this. All of these assume none of the above scenarios happen.
- Raiders-Chiefs and Chargers-Broncos could be picked if: The Chiefs lose
OR the Chargers win. This would take some pressure off the 4:25 time slot but wouldn’t have any effect on any other games.
- Cardinals-Seahawks and Eagles-Trumps could be picked if: The Seahawks lose AND the Vikings win AND one of the Eagles and Trumps wins while the other loses. These two games would pretty much decide the wild card – both spots if the Vikings lost earlier in the day.
- Bears-Vikings and Eagles-Trumps could be picked if: The Bears lose AND the Cowboys lose AND the Rams win AND one of the Eagles and Trumps wins while the other loses AND (the Seahawks win OR the Vikings lose). The last parenthetical is just to ensure a Seahawks loss wouldn’t put the Vikings in the playoffs anyway.
- Dolphins-Bills and Jets-Patriots could be picked if: The Patriots lose AND the Dolphins win. There’s a chance this just determines home field for a rubber match the following week, but it seems fairly slim given the state of the AFC Wild Card race.
- Browns-Ravens and Bengals-Steelers could be picked if: The Steelers lose OR the Ravens win (the Browns would also need to be eliminated from the playoffs but the Ravens’ win did that by itself). On the other hand, in this scenario it’s fairly likely for both teams to end up making the playoffs depending on what the other AFC Wild Card contenders do, though it seems unlikely for the division champion to climb to the 3 seed and make these games for home field advantage for a game between the teams the following week. But this is open as a safety valve, and I doubt it’ll be the only one.
Cardinals-Seahawks and Bears-Vikings could be picked if: The Bears lose AND the Cowboys lose AND the Rams win AND the Seahawks lose AND the Vikings lose AND the Eagles and Trumps win AND Washington could hold the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Seahawks. This scenario is highly unlikely even by the standards of scenarios involving Bears-Vikings as the league could still decide to just put on Eagles-Trumps. (Moreover, this could be a scenario that depends on the Monday night game, as is the vanilla Eagles-Trumps scenario, as the Seahawks beat the Raiders but lost to the Broncos.)
- Colts-Titans and Browns-Ravens could be picked if: The Steelers and Ravens win AND one of the Titans and Colts wins while the other loses AND if the Colts are the ones who lose, the Ravens have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over them. In this scenario, one of the Colts or Titans have been completely eliminated from the playoffs, thus necessitating the other team play at the same time as the Ravens.
- Eagles-Trumps and Cowboys-Giants could be picked if: The Cowboys lose AND the Vikings win AND one of the Eagles and Trumps wins while the other loses AND if Washington is the one that loses, the Seahawks either win or have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over them. The NFC equivalent of the above. As before, this may depend on the Monday night game.
- Panthers-Saints and 49ers-Rams could be picked if: The Saints lose AND the Rams win AND (the Panthers lose OR the Vikings
or Trumpswin). Battle for home field in the NFC, as long as the Panthers have nothing to play for no matter what.
- Jets-Patriots and Jaguars-Texans could be picked if: The Patriots win OR the Texans lose. The Dolphins might need to lose in the latter scenario as well, but I suspect NBC would rather have the Texans in the other game, and it’s not like the Patriots would simply blow off a chance to pick up a first round bye even if a Dolphins loss earlier in the day has clinched the division for them. On the other hand, the league would probably prefer the greater drama of a division title being on the line.
- Bengals-Steelers and Jaguars-Texans could be picked if: The Steelers win AND the Texans and Patriots lose. Yes, the Steelers have a chance to not only steal the first-round bye but to have that shot even if they’re playing after a Patriots win.
Dolphins-Bills and Browns-Ravens could be picked if: The Ravens, Colts, and Titans all lose AND the Dolphins win AND the Ravens have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Colts. The Dolphins beat the Titans, lost to the Colts, and would have the edge in conference games in any scenario where they finish tied with the Ravens. If the Dolphins, Colts, and Ravens all finished tied in this scenario the Dolphins would have the edge in conference games, so any scenario where the Colts play first would require the Ravens to win a one-on-one tie with the Colts. The Titans, meanwhile, could still make the playoffs but only if the Dolphins and Ravens, both of whom they lost to, both lose, precluding them from playing at the same time as either.
- Bears-Vikings and 49ers-Rams could be picked if: The Vikings win AND the Eagles and Trumps lose AND (the Bears win OR the Rams lose). Now we get into a situation that’s the converse of the other Bears-Vikings scenarios, where the Bears are playing for a first-round bye while the Vikings have already locked up a playoff spot. Problem is, in this scenario it would probably still be best for these games to be played simultaneously with Cardinals-Seahawks at 4:25, as I imagine the Vikings would much rather face the Cowboys than the Bears or Rams, and it’d be best if the Seahawks result didn’t clinch whichever one it was. (And no, that’s not a recipe for Cardinals-Seahawks and Bears-Vikings to be the pick if the Bears have nothing to play for, especially if the Seahawks lose this week and Washington can still nick that strength of victory edge.)
- Jaguars-Texans and Raiders-Chiefs could be picked if: The Texans win AND the Chiefs win AND the Texans have clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Chiefs. This is for the relatively esoteric shot at home field in the AFC (which could matter but I feel like most people are confident, rightly or wrongly, that the Patriots and Steelers are better than the Texans) and depends on strength of victory breaking a certain way, so it’s extremely unlikely.