Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 6

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 (newly updated!), 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):

  • Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ LA Chargers
  • Prospects: 3-3 v. 4-2. Should normally be safe at that level but might want to keep an eye on the Steelers to see if they’re more like the three wins or three losses.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Bears (CBS) and Cowboys-Chiefs or Packers-Vikings (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Bengals-Raiders is the only game on the entire Sunday slate pitting two teams above (not at) .500; the listed possible protections are the games pitting 3-3 teams against teams above that mark. Saints-Eagles, RedWolves-Panthers, Colts-Bills, and Cardinals-Seahawks are dark horses.

Week 12 (November 28):

  • Tentative game: Cleveland @ Baltimore
  • Prospects: 3-3 (now 4-3, because I should have gotten this in before the Thursday night game) v. 5-1. Two rivals in the thick of a heated battle in the AFC North.
  • Likely protections: Titans-Patriots, Steelers-Bengals, Chargers-Broncos, or nothing (CBS) and Rams-Packers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving weekend, paucity of good games; Steelers-Bengals is the only potentially unprotected game pitting two teams at or above .500, with Chargers-Broncos joining them before Thursday night. Vikings-Niners is a dark horse, followed by Bucs-Colts and Titans-Patriots.

Week 13 (December 5):

  • Tentative game: San Francisco @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 2-3 v. 2-4. It’s looking like the NFC West is going to come down to the other two teams in the division, especially with Russell Wilson out.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Steelers (CBS) and Cardinals-Bears, Bucs-Falcons, or nothing (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Chargers-Bengals pits two 4-2 teams while Cardinals-Bears has the unbeaten factor going for it. Broncos-Chiefs was a battle of 3-3 teams before Thursday night. Bucs-Falcons and Defenders-Raiders are dark horses.

Week 14 (December 12):

  • Tentative game: Chicago @ Green Bay
  • Prospects: 3-3 v. 5-1. The league’s oldest rivalry, potentially pitting the top two teams in the division.
  • Likely protections: Bills-Bucs (CBS) and Cowboys-Football Team (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Ravens-Browns looks attractive but NBC is already airing the other half of that rivalry a few weeks earlier. Raiders-Chiefs could be strong as well. Niners-Bengals and Falcons-Panthers are dark horses.

Week 15 (December 19):

  • Tentative game: New Orleans @ Tampa Bay
  • Prospects: 3-2 v. 5-1, and with the Panthers struggling of late these are the top two teams in the division.
  • Likely protections: Bengals-Broncos if anything (CBS) and Packers-Ravens or Seahawks-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: As usual, assuming the games set aside for a potential move to Saturday can’t be protected; right now Raiders-Browns and Panthers-Bills are the best choices, leaving RedHogs-Eagles and Patriots-Colts to be dark horses, joined by Falcons-Niners and Seahawks-Rams. Titans-Steelers and Bengals-Broncos are the best of the rest of the slate.

Week 16 (December 26):

  • Tentative game: Washington @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 2-4 v. 5-1. The Cowboys have escaped last season’s NFC East mediocrity, which just makes this look lopsided, but 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: Ravens-Bengals pits two teams above .500 but I was concerned enough about their name value to list three other protection options for CBS as well, plus the option of leaving it unprotected despite this being a doubleheader week for them. Rams-Vikings, Bucs-Panthers, Steelers-Chiefs, and (formerly) Broncos-Raiders involve only teams at .500 or above; Bills-Patriots and Bears-Seahawks are dark horses.

Week 17 (January 2):

  • Tentative game: Minnesota @ Green Bay
  • Prospects: 3-3 v. 5-1. If Bears-Packers doesn’t pit the top two teams in the division, this one will.
  • Likely protections: Chiefs-Bengals or Broncos-Chargers (CBS) and Rams-Ravens or Cardinals-Cowboys (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Besides Fox’s potentially protected games, Panthers-Saints, Chiefs-Bengals, and (formerly) Broncos-Chargers pit two teams at or above .500. Eagles-Presidents, Raiders-Colts, and Falcons-Bills are dark horses.

Week 18 (January 9):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Number of Primetime Appearances Per Team for the 2021 S

So yeah, I’m running very late with this post, taking it down to the very last minute (literally, I’m starting writing it just five hours before the bulk of the Week 6 slate starts, and I haven’t even updated the Flex Scheduling Primer), I don’t really have a good reason for it, and I’m not particularly happy about it. The main reason I kept putting it off was wanting to talk about the impact of the NFL’s new TV agreements and 17-game schedule on flex scheduling, even though what we know raises more questions than answers. So as I present this to you about 40 minutes into the Week 6 early slate I’m going to talk about those developments, and list each team’s count of primetime appearances, and bring you at least a rudimentary form of the Week 5 post I should have given you earlier in the week.

Starting with the new TV agreements, here are the main points affecting flex scheduling (ignoring things like the playoffs, the fate of TNF, and the various other games going to various streamers):

  • Though it was initially reported that CBS would keep its AFC-centric package while Fox kept its NFC-centric package, it later came out that there would be a compromise form of the unconferenced schedule: CBS and Fox would pick a handful of teams from their respective conference they would show a minimum number of games from, and the rest would be a free-for-all. These appearance minimums will likely have the effect of restricting crossflexes and primetime flex scheduling for the teams involved, but who knows how; CBS’ press release contained the line “CBS will also gain increased rights to protect games from being flexed to other networks and time slots”, but for all I know that’s just referring to those appearance minimums (and it sounds like firm numbers for those haven’t even been decided on; the folks at the 506 forums seemed to think each network would “request” a variable number of games of a variable number of teams each season). But if the details aren’t reported by the time the new deal kicks in it may be nearly impossible to make meaningful predictions, and considering that the teams selected for protection of this sort aren’t likely to be reported, it may well be substantially more difficult anyway.
  • Monday Night Football is not only picking up flex scheduling but is doing so on similar terms to what NBC started off with: starting Week 12 (only a week later than NBC) and being picked 12 days in advance, not the month or more that Saturday flex scheduling had been using. With Monday night games mostly still being on ESPN only, I would imagine NBC would still be a bigger priority and MNF flexing would generally only apply to absolute stinkers, but it could still make weeks where both NBC and ESPN have potentially flexible games all the more difficult to process, and between this and the above bullet point I may end up considering a large-scale format change for the Flex Schedule Watch (and frankly I may have to shift the focus from trying to predict games to simply identifying games that might get flexed). There’s also a change to MNF that affects this season; more on this below.
  • While this part hadn’t been voted on by the owners at the time it was reported, according to SI’s Albert Breer SNF games will now explicitly be able to be flexed in six days in advance in Weeks 15-17, presumably in addition to Week 18. (Far from suggesting it didn’t necessarily pass, the fact it needed to pass the owners’ vote made me wonder whether the earlier six-day flex window was tied to the expanded season and would come into effect this year, but judging from NBC’s SNF schedule press release it doesn’t look like it, not that that’s stopped the league from doing it anyway.) The fact that NBC put flex scheduling beginning in Week 5 in the sub-headline of their press release on the new deals may imply that the distinction between early and late flexes may be dissolved, but that may be me reading too much into that; Breer stated that SNF games can be flexed in 12 days in advance in “Weeks 5-14”, but of course that’s technically the case now.

Two changes have more immediate impact on this season: the move to a 17-game schedule, and the addition of a Saturday doubleheader simulcast across ABC and ESPN in the new Week 18. Considering how tight things have gotten with regards to having a viable SNF game in Week 17, including one year where NBC went without a game at all, giving ABC and ESPN not one but two games that week feels iffy. While the league would have more options for Saturday night games before the bulk of games on Sunday than for the Sunday night game after the Sunday slate, the options will still be pretty limited to games that don’t run the risk of taking away the motivation for teams playing on Sunday to play for the win, especially if teams don’t see the point of playing for seeding outside winning the division and the single first-round bye in each conference. In situations where there are multiple SNF-ready games it would work (though I think that’s only happened once or twice), and it would also work in situations like last year with a game that’s win-and-in, lose-and-out for only one team (where the game to determine the beneficiary of that team losing could move to Saturday), and there are the occasional games where the only teams not playing that are affected by the outcome could still have something to play for regardless of the result (the sorts of games that have occasionally wound up in the 1 PM ET timeslot), but I don’t know that it’ll be enough (especially if teams that play on MNF Week 17 can’t be moved to Saturday Week 18, and sorting out all the situations involved is part of why I’m taking extra time to edit the Flex Scheduling Primer). It might have been better to adopt the idea one of my commenters had, to play every game in each conference at a particular time and split each conference’s games two to each network partner, split regionally on each broadcast network with the game not airing on broadcast locally airing on a sister cable network (perhaps with CBS’ extra game airing on NFL Network).

(Incidentally, among the games that would have moved to Saturday are last year’s Cowboys-Giants game and the aforementioned “multiple SNF-ready games” situation where Fox wound up with Bears-Packers for the NFC North. You can see why CBS and Fox might not have been happy about this, on top of ABC muscling its way into the Super Bowl rotation with just five regular season games.)

Outside of that, the main impact of the expanded schedule is that teams are now allowed a seventh primetime appearance; there is also now an explicit rule that teams can be scheduled for no more than three games on each of SNF and MNF at the start of the season (presumably most teams will only max out on one or the other with a sixth game on TNF). It’s not entirely clear from the link whether this starts with the new deal or right away, but we can infer the answer from how the schedule plays out over the next two years, which brings us to the table of each team’s current number of appearances across the league’s three primetime packages on NBC, ESPN, and Fox/NFL Network for the season, useful for determining what games can be flexed into or out of Sunday night for my Flex Schedule Watch. Recall the old appearance limits are six primetime games for three teams, five for everyone else, and four NBC appearances; the question of whether the old or new limits apply is… inconclusive, as the Packers, and only the Packers, have six primetime appearances counting their Christmas day game against the Browns, and this wouldn’t be the first time the league has given one or two teams a full six-game slate of primetime appearances (and notably, the Packers are also the only team with two SNF games in the late flex period, not counting the Saints’ Thanksgiving game). In the “Flexible” column, a plus sign indicates SNF games in the Week 5-10 early flex period; if it’s in parenthesis it indicates a game in Week 5-7 where it’s too late to be flexed. Note that the Jets and Falcons may have a second appearance each from their London game on NFL Network, and two games will move to Saturday in Week 15 (the following two Saturdays are Christmas and New Year’s respectively, so you can understand why the league wouldn’t have flexible games on those days), chosen from five pre-selected options, increasing the counts for the teams involved; the options are NYJ/MIA, WAS/PHI, LV/CLE, CAR/BUF, and NE/IND.

Team PT App’s On NBC Flexible
GB 6 3 2
KC 5 3 0+1(+1)
TB 5 3 1
SF 5 3 1(+1)
DAL 5 3 1+1
LAR 5 2 0+1
BAL 5 2 1
NO 5 2 1
SEA 5 2 1(+1)
PIT 5 2 1(+1)
BUF 4 2 0(+1)
CHI 4 2 1
MIN 4 2 1+1
IND 4* 1 0(+1)
CLE 4* 1 1
NE 3* 1 0
LV 3* 1 0+1
TEN 3 1 0+1
WAS 3* 1 1
LAC 3 1 1
NYG 3 0 0
ARI 3 0 0
PHI 2* 0 0
MIA 2* 0 0
All others 1* 0 0

Finally, a quick and dirty rundown of where the late flex slate, plus early flex games involving sub-.500 teams, stand through five weeks (records don’t include the Thursday night or London games). I reserve the right to change my predicted protections later when I’m less sleep-deprived:

  • Week 8: Tentative: Cowboys (4-1) @ Vikings (2-3). Games between 3-2 or better teams: Bucs (4-1) @ Saints (3-2), which Fox will presumably protect as their featured late doubleheader game. Hey, just because I’m listing early flex games involving sub-.500 teams doesn’t mean they actually stand a chance in hell of being flexed out.
  • Week 10: Tentative: Chiefs (2-3) @ Raiders (3-2). Games between 3-2 or better teams: Saints (3-2) @ Titans (3-2), Panthers (3-2) @ Cardinals (5-0). Those games belong to CBS and Fox respectively, and there’s a bit more to say about this because it’s not clear that they’d automatically protect those games; CBS’ late doubleheader slot is slated to be anchored by Seahawks-Packers, which has lost a lot of luster with Russell Wilson injured (not the quarterback CBS was likely worried about this game missing when the schedule came out), but it’s not clear Saints-Titans has the star power for them to protect it, or move to the late slot, over Browns-Patriots. Frankly Saints-Titans isn’t a good enough game to flex into Sunday night over Chiefs-Raiders anyway; Panthers-Cardinals, a game involving a currently-undefeated team against a surprisingly strong foe potentially trapped in 4:05 singleheader purgatory, would be more interesting, but there isn’t another obvious game for Fox to protect unless Washington surges enough for Fox to consider protecting Bucs-Football Team. Still, keep an eye on this if the Chiefs continue to struggle the next two weeks.
  • Week 11: Tentative: Steelers (2-3) @ Chargers (4-1). Likely protections: Ravens-Bears (CBS); Cowboys-Chiefs or Packers-Vikings (FOX). Other possible games: Bengals-Raiders (a longshot for CBS’ protection), Saints-Eagles, Football Team-Panthers, Cardinals-Seahawks. Despite some decent options and a below-.500 team in the tentative, Steelers probably need to be significantly weaker for this game to lose its spot.
  • Week 12: Tentative: Browns (3-2) @ Ravens (4-1). Likely protections: Titans-Patriots, Steelers-Bengals, Chargers-Broncos, or nothing (CBS); Rams-Packers (FOX). Other possible games: Besides CBS’ unprotected games, Vikings-49ers. Two above-.500 teams and the only other such game that might be unprotected isn’t one that would set the world on fire; expect this game to keep its spot.
  • Week 13: Tentative: 49ers (2-3) @ Seahawks (2-3, no Wilson). Likely protections: Ravens-Steelers (CBS); Cardinals-Bears, Bucs-Falcons, or nothing (FOX). Other possible games: Besides Fox’s unprotected game(s), Chargers-Bengals, Broncos-Chiefs, and Football Team-Raiders. Cardinals-Bears and Chargers-Bengals both pit 3-2 teams against teams 4-1 or better, and there are two or three games involving 2-3 teams, so if the Seahawks go into the tank without Wilson this game could be very vulnerable.
  • Week 14: Tentative: Bears (3-2) @ Packers (4-1). Likely protections: Bills-Bucs (CBS); Cowboys-Football Team (FOX). Other possible games: Ravens-Browns, 49ers-Bengals, Raiders-Chiefs, Falcons-Panthers. Despite Ravens-Browns pitting two teams above .500, the NFL’s oldest rivalry for potential control of the NFC North isn’t losing its spot.
  • Week 15: Tentative: Saints (3-2) @ Bucs (4-1). Likely protections: Bengals-Broncos if anything (CBS); Packers-Ravens or Seahawks-Rams (FOX). Other possible games: Titans-Steelers and Falcons-49ers (assuming any attractive games that can be moved to Saturday will be). If the Saints stay even decent this game should keep its spot.
  • Week 16: Tentative: Football Team (2-3) @ Cowboys (4-1). Likely protections: Ravens-Bengals, Bills-Patriots, Steelers-Chiefs, Broncos-Raiders, or nothing (CBS); Bucs-Panthers, Bears-Seahawks, or nothing (FOX). Other possible games: Rams-Vikings. After last year we can’t say for certain that a Cowboys game will never be flexed out, and this game has the distinct possibility of becoming lopsided, but Ravens-Bengals and Broncos-Raiders are the only games that don’t involve a team at 2-3 or worse, and I don’t know that either is worth flexing out the Cowboys for, especially if you’re picking behind CBS.
  • Week 17: Tentative: Vikings (2-3) @ Packers (4-1). Likely protections: Chiefs-Bengals or Broncos-Chargers (CBS); Rams-Ravens or Cardinals-Cowboys (FOX). Other possible games: Panthers-Saints, Falcons-Bills, Eagles-Football Team. Has the potential to get lopsided, and Fox has two games pitting teams with no more than one loss each, so a flex could be a distinct possibility. Even if the Vikings stay respectable, the league might still pull the flex if none of the teams in Fox’s potentially protected games catch up to the number of losses the Vikings have now, to avoid one of the games ending up subject to the vagaries of regionalization in the early window. Of course, minimizing the possibility of the Week 18 SNF game depending on the Week 17 result could also come into play.