It’s probably not the last time the NFL will alter its prime-time schedule this season, but before we peer into the crystal ball, it’s best to go over the NFL’s flex-scheduling rules for games played in Week 11 or later:
— Only games originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon may be moved into the prime-time spot. Games scheduled for Thursday nights, Saturday nights and Monday nights are untouchable.
— Flex-schedule changes will be announced no later than 12 days before the game day in question. For Week 17, when all the games tentatively are scheduled for 1 p.m., the league can announce flex-schedule changes six days in advance.
— Starting in Week 11, Fox and CBS can protect one game in five of the next six weeks, keeping those games in their Sunday afternoon time slots. They cannot protect any games in Week 17. According to flex-scheduling guru Morgan Wick, the networks must submit those protected games to the league after Week 5 in most seasons.
— No team is allowed more than six prime-time appearances per season and only three teams are allowed to have six prime-time games. No team may play in the Sunday night game on NBC more than four times (though Week 17 is exempt from those limits).
Scheduled Sunday night game: Patriots at Texans.
Flex possibilities (if not protected): 49ers at Ravens (Fox), Raiders at Chiefs (CBS).
Chances it gets flexed out: Slim, especially if Houston beats Baltimore on Sunday. With three games on Thanksgiving that week, the league has fewer contests to choose from.
Scheduled Sunday night game: Seahawks at Rams.
Flex possibilities (if not protected): 49ers at Saints (Fox), Chiefs at Patriots (CBS).
Chances it gets flexed out: Chiefs-Patriots was probably an auto-protect for CBS the moment the NFL released the 2019 schedule: It’s not letting an AFC championship game rematch between the dominant franchise of our era and the league’s most exciting quarterback get taken away. Likewise, Fox probably put a lock on 49ers-Saints considering its alternatives that day. The Rams have been disappointing, for sure, but they’re still in the playoff conversation, and the Seahawks have an MVP candidate in Russell Wilson. That’s plenty good enough.
Week 15 (Sunday, Dec. 15)
Scheduled Sunday night game: Vikings at Chargers.
Flex possibilities (if not protected): Seahawks-Panthers (Fox), Texans-Titans (CBS), Bills-Steelers (CBS), Rams-Cowboys (Fox).
Chances it gets flexed out: Is anyone truly excited about watching the currently 4-6 Chargers in prime time? Fox seems likely to have put the kibosh on Rams-Cowboys, but Seahawks-Panthers could be worthy of the spotlight, as could Bills-Steelers, with the latter a possible showdown for AFC wild-card positioning if Pittsburgh can keep up its surprising surge.
Week 16 (Sunday, Dec. 22)
Scheduled Sunday night game: Chiefs at Bears.
Flex possibilities (if not protected): Cowboys-Eagles (Fox), Saints-Titans (Fox), Panthers-Colts (Fox).
Chances it gets flexed out: It’s hard to see the NFL wanting to keep the stumbling Bears in prime time for the penultimate week of the regular season. But the league also boxed itself in a bit on Tuesday when it also announced the schedule for the three Saturday games in Week 16: Texans-Bucs, Bills-Patriots and Rams-49ers. Those latter two games, especially, would probably be candidates for “Sunday Night Football” but now have protected Saturday status. Cowboys-Eagles on Fox is now the obvious choice, though one has to think Fox protected it, leaving Saints-Titans and Panthers-Colts — all teams with playoff aspirations — as the choices to move to prime time.
Week 17 (Sunday, Dec. 29)
Best games: Steelers-Ravens (CBS), Saints-Panthers (Fox), Titans-Texans (CBS), Colts-Jaguars (CBS), 49ers-Seahawks (Fox).
As of now, all of the Week 17 games are scheduled for the afternoon, and the NFL may ultimately decide to keep all those games there if there are no games with massive playoff implications. But Monday night’s thriller between the 49ers and Seahawks could have the league salivating for a rematch, especially if it will decide the NFC West title, the NFC’s No. 1 seed or both. Steelers-Ravens likely would be the second choice.