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.
Week 12 (November 29):
- Selected game: Chicago @ Green Bay.
Week 13 (December 6):
- Selected game: Denver @ Kansas City? I guess? There hasn’t been any sort of announcement of a flex outside the Week 15 Saturday games (see below) and the change in this week’s Steelers-Ravens game. It is somewhat defensible as the Broncos with their win aren’t that far outside the playoff picture (though there’s enough congestion for the AFC wild card spots, even with the extra spot, that it’s a long shot), but I have to conclude that Rams-Cardinals was protected, Browns-Titans didn’t have enough name value to make it worth the trouble, and flexing in an NFC East game with a team with a worse record than the Broncos would have been a slap in the face to the rest of the league. (Perhaps next week’s Cowboys-Ravens game, which the Ravens will now be playing on a short week while the Cowboys won’t, could have been moved to SNF once Steelers-Ravens was postponed?) Unless you count the last-minute Seahawks-Cardinals move, it looks like we’re in for another flex-free season (and no, Niners-Cowboys is not getting flexed out, certainly not with the Cowboys in the thick of the division race despite their terrible record; more on the history involved next week).
Week 14 (December 13):
- Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Buffalo
- Prospects: 10-0 v. 7-3. May seem a skosh lopsided, but only three teams would be less lopsided opponents for the unbeaten Steelers, and the Bills still lead the division and represent one of the biggest obstacles for the Steelers going unbeaten the rest of the way.
- Likely protections: Colts-Raiders if anything (CBS) and Saints-Eagles (FOX).
- Other possible games: Chiefs-Dolphins is probably the best option even if Colts-Raiders is unprotected (even though Colts-Raiders is less lopsided). Vikings-Bucs doesn’t have as much going for it with the Vikings losing, and Packers-Lions remains a dark horse. Snyders-Niners and Cardinals-Giants continue to have import on the NFC East race.
- Analysis: No potential option has a worse team better than 6-4, and the league isn’t flexing out an unbeaten team against one of the better teams in the league, so you’re looking at the Steelers and Bills both needing to lose. Even then I don’t think 10-1 v. 7-4 is losing to another game with the same pair of records, or even a less lopsided 8-3 v. 7-4 – especially when Colts-Raiders has nowhere near the name value of the Steelers alone.
- Final prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills (no change).
Week 15 (December 20):
- Tentative game: San Francisco @ Dallas
- Prospects: 4-6 v. 3-7, 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: Bills-Broncos and Panthers-Packers moved to Saturday, but not Lions-Titans. Given the Panthers’ struggles, it seems like the name value of the Packers was the main consideration there, while the Bills leading their division gave them the edge over a game with the same pair of records and the Lions having a slightly easier path to the playoffs in the NFC. If this weekend unexpectedly being college football championship weekend was a factor you would think that would mitigate against Panthers-Packers, pitting two college-mad markets, but it does provide an extra edge for Bills-Broncos over Lions-Titans. Regardless, Fox’s unprotected game(s), plus Browns-Giants, 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, Bears-Vikings, and now Lions-Titans also having outside shots.
Week 16 (December 27):
- Tentative game: Tennessee @ Green Bay
- Prospects: 7-3 v. 7-3. Two teams with unexpectedly identical records in the thick of the playoff hunt, but the Packers have a clearer path to both the division and potentially a first-round bye.
- 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, Cowboys-Giants, Vikings-Lions, Steelers-Browns, Packers-Bears, Saints-Panthers, Dolphins-Bills, Seahawks-Niners, Cardinals-Rams.