Through nine weeks of the season, the NFL’s TV ratings are down 5.5 percent compared with 2016, and with no post-Election Day bounce expected this year, that number could struggle to rise. And while some have overstated the importance of the league’s ratings issues — compared with the rest of network TV programming, the NFL actually is looking pretty good — the league and the advertisers who spend millions on football-game commercials probably would like to reverse that trend.

The NFL does have one card to play with its flex-scheduling rules, in which the league can move a marquee matchup from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night on NBC to shine a spotlight on the weekend’s best game. But there are parameters in place that give CBS, Fox and ESPN — the league’s other broadcast partners — a certain amount of protection so that their best games aren’t repeatedly snatched away.

The rules:

  1. Only games originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon may be moved to Sunday night. Games played on Thursdays (including the Thanksgiving games), Mondays and Saturdays are untouchable.
  2. The league must give the networks 12 days’ notice of a flexed game except for Week 17, when the required notice is only six days.
  3. Starting with Week 11, CBS and Fox can shield one game from flex scheduling in five of the following six weeks. No games can be protected in Week 17.
  4. Three teams may appear in a prime-time game on ESPN, NBC or NFL Network a maximum of six times and no team may appear on NBC more than four times between Week 1 and Week 16. Those limits do not apply to Week 17. (H/t: Morgan Wick.) For our purposes today, this affects two teams: The Chiefs, who cannot be flexed into any upcoming Sunday night games because they will reach their six-game maximum between Weeks 1 and 16, and the Patriots, who will be making their third prime-time appearance on NBC this Sunday. New England can only be flexed into one more Sunday night game through Week 16.

Knowing all this, here are the best Sunday night matchups moving forward. Weeks 10 (Broncos-Patriots) and 11 (Eagles-Cowboys) are set in stone already, so we’re starting with Week 12. Keep in mind that we don’t know most of the games CBS and Fox are protecting.

Week 12 (decision due by Wednesday)

Known protected games: Vikings-Lions, Chargers-Cowboys and Giants-Redskins (all on Thanksgiving), plus Texans-Ravens (Monday night)

Scheduled SNF game: Packers-Steelers

Prediction: In most years Packers-Steelers would be a dream matchup for NBC, but Aaron Rodgers is out and Green Bay is floundering. It needs to be moved to the afternoon. Bills-Chiefs has become somewhat enticing, but Kansas City has maxed out its prime-time appearances. Thus, there is one choice: Saints-Rams. New Orleans has a future Hall of Famer in Drew Brees and a revamped defense. Los Angeles has revamped, well, everything and has a fun offense to watch. Both teams currently sit at 6-2. What’s not to love?


Week 13

Known protected games: Redskins-Cowboys (Thursday), Steelers-Bengals (Monday)

Scheduled SNF game: Eagles-Seahawks

Prediction: Patriots-Bills probably would get some notice from the league and NBC, but one would have to think CBS would protect that one. Eagles-Seahawks stays on Sunday night. Caw!

Week 14

Known protected games: Saints-Falcons (Thursday), Patriots-Dolphins (Monday).

Scheduled SNF game: Ravens-Steelers.

Prediction: Ugh, the Ravens. Honestly, who wants to watch the Ravens charmlessly slog their way around the field? Get them out. But the NFL and NBC have a bit of an issue in that their two best choices — Seahawks-Jaguars and Eagles-Rams — involve teams that possibly could be featured on SNF the previous two weeks. Also, is the world ready for the Jaguars in prime time, even if their defense is something else? I’m not so sure about that. However, both of those games are scheduled for Fox, which can only protect one of them. Gimme Eagles-Rams, to decide which team got the best of the 2016 draft.


Week 15

Known protected games: Broncos-Colts (Thursday), Bears-Lions, Chargers-Chiefs (Saturday), Patriots-Steelers (Sunday), Falcons-Bucs (Monday).

Scheduled SNF game: Cowboys-Raiders.

Prediction: Steelers-Patriots likely would have been the only game to budge the Cowboys out of prime time, but CBS already has let it be known that it’s protecting the game for a late-afternoon showing. Smart. Rams-Seahawks is another option, but seeing as how I’ve already filled the schedule with the Rams and Seahawks, let’s just say Cowboys-Raiders stays in place, even though Oakland is kind of a mess and Dallas might not have Ezekiel Elliott.

Week 16

Flex scheduling gets a week off because that Sunday is Christmas Eve. No games at all that night.


Week 17

Protected games: None!

Scheduled SNF game: TBD!

Prediction: Panthers-Falcons, Jaguars-Titans, Packers-Lions, Bills-Dolphins, Cowboys-Eagles and Cardinals-Seahawks could all have some bearing on the playoffs. Let’s just say Elliott is allowed to play the rest of the season, the Eagles stay hot and Dallas keeps pace in the NFC East. Cowboys-Eagles thus becomes a very enticing matchup for the final Sunday night game of the season.


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