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.