Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 13

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.

8 thoughts on “Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 13

  1. Here’s my take on things so far. (Reposted from previous thread)

    Week 15

    # 1 – Packers(9-3) @ Ravens(8-4) <—I bet FOX has this protected
    # 2 – Titans(8-4) @ Steelers(6-5-1)
    # 3 – Bengals(7-4) @ Broncos(6-6)

    Tentative – Saints(5-7) @ Buccaneers(9-3) – based on the NFL throwing out a revised Week 15 schedule, before Week 13, perhaps this stays? I sure hope not and after I post this I will look at nflcommunications.com and see if anything else has changed about Week 15.

    Week 16

    # 1 – Ravens(8-4) @ Bengals(7-5) <—huge game after Bengals smacked Ravens earlier this season in Baltimore
    # 2 – Bills(7-5) @ Patriots(9-4) <—huge rematch after the 1st matchup is this coming Monday, but if Bills lose in Tampa this coming Sunday, then it will have a 2 game spread, which won't help its chances
    # 3 – Redskins(6-6) @ Cowboys(8-4) <—the tentative and looks good to stay and if Washington beats Dallas at FedEx Field this coming Sunday, there's NO WAY this game moves…… 99.99999% chance to stay
    # 4 – Steelers(6-5-1) @ Chiefs(8-4) <—can't be flexed in as KC is out of SNF until Week 18 and I think that the NFL flexed Kansas City in too early with that game this past Sunday vs. Denver, but perhaps the Chiefs are protected the rest of the way ?
    # 3 – Broncos(6-6) @ Raiders(6-6) <—potentially pretty important and this week Denver hosts the Lions and the Raiders are in KC

    Tentative – Redskins(6-6) @ Cowboys(8-4) – looks good to stay and if Washington beats Dallas at FedEx Field this coming Sunday, there's NO WAY this game moves…… 99.99999% chance to stay

    Week 17

    # 1 – Rams(8-4) @ Ravens (8-4) <— pretty big matchup, though the Rams could be done for their Division if they lose this coming Monday in Arizona
    # 2 – Chiefs(8-4) @ Bengals(7-5) <—might have been a fun matchup for SNF, but Chiefs are maxed out on SNF until Week 18
    # 3 – Cardinals(10-2) @ Cowboys(8-4) <—probably protected by FOX
    # 4 – Raiders(6-6) @ Colts(7-6) <—potentially intriguing and potentially a Colts destruction
    # 5 – Broncos(6-6) @ Chargers(7-5) <—Broncos have been a hard matchup for Herbert in his short career

    Tentative – Vikings(5-7) @ Packers(9-3) – if Vikings don't just fall of the earth, this will stay. Vikings plays Steelers and Bears the next 2 weeks. This has to be decided by the end of Week 15. That being said, there are some other compelling matchups in Week 17.

    Week 18 (sounds so weird to say that)

    2 games will be moved from their preliminary Sunday slot to Sat. 01/08/22 and they’ll both be aired on ESPN/ABC. This is an interesting move to me. These 2 games and the SNF game will both be announced with the rest of the Week 18 schedule, at the conclusion of the Week 17 schedule (at the latest).

    Tentative – none of course

    Current Games and Records of each team

    Jets(3-9) @ Bills(7-5)
    Patriots(9-4) @ Dolphins(6-7) – if the Dolphins keep winning ??????
    Steelers(6-5-1) @ Ravens(8-4) – fading due to Steelers, but since the Ravens let the Steelers off the hook this past week and went for 2 and missed ???
    Bengals(7-5) @ Browns(6-6) – I don't know
    Titans(8-4) @ Texans(2-10)
    Colts(7-6) @ Jaguars(2-10)
    Chiefs(8-4) @ Broncos(6-6) – I still believe the Broncos will keep this from being a Nationally televised game and yep……..that's my reasoning still and yes, especially after Week 13
    Chargers(7-5) @ Raiders(6-6) – intriguing if both can stay in playoff position
    Redskins(6-6) @ Giants(4-8)
    Cowboys(8-4) @ Eagles(6-7) – getting closer to a Nationally televised game and more so after Week 12 and after Week 13
    Packers(9-3) @ Lions(1-10-1)
    Bears(4-8) @ Vikings(5-7)
    Saints(5-7) @ Falcons(5-7)
    Panthers(5-7) @ Buccaneers(9-3)
    Seahawks(4-8) @ Cardinals(10-2)
    49ers(6-6) @ Rams(8-4) – gaining quickly on a chance to be a Nationally televised game and is probably my best choice now

    I currently have 3 to 4 games looking decent for the 3 Nationally televised games in Week 18 and then a bunch of who knows. We’ll see how that progresses. I'd hate to be the schedule maker for this Week 18. I think the NFL did themselves a bit of a disservice by adding the 2 Saturday games to the schedule, but I do know why they did.

    Any thoughts anyone?

    Go Pack Go this week at Lambeau on SNF vs. the Bears. The team that Rodgers "owns and has always owned" according to his words at the end of their last matchup. 🙂

  2. As of now:

    Week 16: NO WAY Football Team-Cowboys is flexed out UNLESS CBS asks the NFL to give it that game and is willing to give up Bills-Patriots to NBC to do it. WAS-DAL does have special meaning to CBS because of its long history dating back to when CBS first got the NFL (later NFC) package in 1960 and I’m sure some at CBS would want a meaningful WAS-DAL game.

    Week 17: Still think whichever of Cardinals-Cowboys or Rams-Ravens is NOT protected by FOX goes to SNF.

    Week 18: If things go the way I think as of now they will, the Eagles run the table and the Cowboys fall back to where Cowboys-Eagles is a winner-take-all for the NFC East, EVEN IF both have clinched playoff berths by then (the NFC East actually could send three teams to the postseason), THAT is the Sunday Night finale, meaning the Eagles finish on SNF at home two years in a row even though the earlier meeting in Week 3 was on ESPN, which might be the one reason the NFL may try to avoid at all costs doing that.

    49ers-Rams is a candidate for Saturday though ESPN did have the earlier matchup as well.

    If the Football Team is alive for a Wild Card, then WFT-Giants is a possibility, however, that might not be able to be put on Saturday if it forces The Meadowlands Racetrack to give up a Saturday night program (whereas the last time this came up in 2003, The Big M was owned by the NJSEA, The Meadowlands is now owned by Jeff Gural and I’m not sure Mr. Gural nor horsemen at The Big M would allow losing a Saturday night card to happen just so the WFT-Giants game can be moved to Saturday), plus the earlier meeting was a Week 2 NFL Network matchup, which may torpedo it.

    Same problem with Chiefs-Broncos, which would be a Saturday candidate except the Week 13 matchup was flexed to Sunday Night Football.

    That leaves Patriots-Dolphins as a likely candidate to be on Saturday since the Pats could be playing for the #1 seed in the AFC while the Dolphins could actually run the table and finish 10-7 and regardless of what happens Saturday would need Sunday results to break to be alive.

    Chargers-Raiders is another candidate for Saturday except ESPN had the earlier meeting between the two as well.

    Bengals-Browns looks to be the other candidate for Saturday based on all of the above as of now.

  3. As I see it for Week 18 as of now:

    Saturday 4:30 (ESPN/ABC): Bengals-Browns
    Saturday 8:15 (ESPN/ABC): Patriots-Dolphins
    Sunday 8:20 (NBC): Cowboys-Eagles

  4. My Final Predictions From Flexed Schedule Of SNF

    Week 15 : Bengals-Broncos
    Week 16 : Football Team-Cowboys (No Change)
    Week 17 : Raiders-Colts
    Week 18 : Patriots-Dolphins

  5. Andrei:

    There was no change in Week 15. That ship had sailed.

    Week 16 most likely is as is unless CBS specifically pushes to have the NFL give them Football-Cowboys because of what that rivalry specifically means to CBS and give NBC Bills-Pats.

    Week 17 is most likely to be one of FOX’s two main games with Vikings-Packers replacing whichever moves to SNF as FOX’s main 1:00 PM game (if Rams-Ravens moves to SNF, Cardinals-Cowboys moves to 4:25).

    There are also two Saturday night games in Week 18 on ESPN. Pats-Dolphins is MUCH more likely to be on Saturday night on ESPN/ABC than Sunday. If Cowboys-Eagles winds up a winner-take-all, then THAT is the Sunday night game (basically, Eagles must win next three and Cowboys lose three of next four for that to happen, but both scenarios look very realistic at this point). If the Eagles and Cowboys are both 9-7 going into the last game and the NFC East is on the line, then that is it.

  6. As for that Saturday ESPN Doubleheader in Week 18:

    I would do away with that and make Week 18 an all games in one conference at 3:00 and the other at 8:20 with ALL of the games airing between ALL of the broadcast partners on the final Sunday (using cable and DT-2/3/4 Channel simulcasts where needed for the lesser games). Week 17 can go back to being what Week 18 is now (though there will be no Monday night game the next two years on that week because both times it is the observed holiday for New Years and the New Year’s Six Bowl games are that Monday). I would give ESPN/ABC those two games like this:

    If there continue to be byes in Week 14, teams that have that bye play the Thursday night Week 15 game and the teams that normally would play Week 15 TNF would instead play a Friday night game that would be on ESPN and ABC. Week 16 TNF would be on ESPN/ABC and be between teams who played Thursday or Friday in Week 15 (as long as it isn’t Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, Amazon Prime would get its game on Saturday that week, otherwise, they would get that game as a 4:30 Monday if that is 12/25 or 12/26).

    Also, as there will not be a Monday night game in Week 17 the next two years, perhaps that can be given back to ESPN as a London game on “Black Friday” (11/24 in 2022 and 11/23 in 2023) that would also air on ABC as a 3:00 PM ET kickoff (8:00 PM in Londomn, with the Thanksgiving NHL game ahead of it at Noon).

  7. Here’s my take on things so far.

    Week 16

    # 1 – Ravens(8-5) @ Bengals(7-6) <—huge game after Bengals smacked Ravens earlier this season in Baltimore & I'd go with this
    # 2 – Bills(7-6) @ Patriots(9-4) <—might be important just for the Bills' survival
    # 3 – Steelers(6-6-1) @ Chiefs(9-4) <—can't be flexed in as KC is out of SNF until Week 18 and I think that the NFL flexed Kansas City in too early with that game this past Sunday vs. Denver, but perhaps the Chiefs are protected the rest of the way ?

    Tentative – Redskins(6-7) @ Cowboys(9-4) – looks good to stay, but with Cowboys beating them this past Sunday, there is some chance of a flex

    Week 17

    # 1 – Cardinals(10-3) @ Cowboys(9-4) <—probably protected by FOX
    # 2 – Rams(9-4) @ Ravens (8-5) <— pretty big matchup and it's NFC vs. AFC and has huge implications in each Conference
    # 3 – Broncos(7-6) @ Chargers(8-5) <—Broncos have been a hard matchup for Herbert in his short career and suddenly this might become a big game
    # 4 – Chiefs(9-4) @ Bengals(7-6) <—might have been a fun matchup for SNF and could be a blowout too, but Chiefs are maxed out on SNF until Week 18

    Tentative – Vikings(6-7) @ Packers(10-3) – if Vikings don't just fall of the earth, this will stay. This has to be decided by the end of Week 15. That being said, there are some other compelling matchups in Week 17.

    Week 18 (sounds so weird to say that)

    2 games will be moved from their preliminary Sunday slot to Sat. 01/08/22 and they’ll both be aired on ESPN/ABC. This is an interesting move to me. These 2 games and the SNF game will both be announced with the rest of the Week 18 schedule, at the conclusion of the Week 17 schedule (at the latest).

    Tentative – none of course

    Current Games and Records of each team

    # 1 – Bengals(7-6) @ Browns(7-6) <—this could be a win and in and lose and out for a final playoff spot, but the odds are that there will be other teams at the same record as them
    # 2 – 49ers(7-6) @ Rams(9-4) <—potentially pivotal NFC West tilt
    # 3 – Chiefs(9-4) @ Broncos(7-6) <—likely not as already flexed in, but if Broncos can keep winning……hmm
    # 4 – Steelers(6-6-1) @ Ravens(8-5) <—this should fall away, as I see the Steelers falling away, However they are only 1 1/2 behind the Ravens for 1st in AFC North, so who knows

    I currently have 4 games looking decent for the 3 Nationally televised games in Week 18 and then a bunch of who knows. We’ll see how that progresses. I'd hate to be the schedule maker for this Week 18. I think the NFL did themselves a bit of a disservice by adding the 2 Saturday games to the schedule, but I do know why they did.

    Any thoughts anyone?

    Go Pack Go this week in Baltimore 🙂

  8. Jeff:

    Football Team still hold the second wild card via tie-breakers at the moment, so no, it won’t be flexed.

    Week 17 still looks to be whichever of Cardinals-Cowboys or Rams-Ravens is NOT protected by FOX with Vikings-Packers becoming FOX’s main 1:00 PM game and the protected game at 4:25.

    Week 18: Pats-Dolphins is looking right now like the frontrunner for 8:15 on Saturday as the Dolphins may need that game but it won’t decide who makes the playoffs in the AFC. The rest is too early to tell again.

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