Flexible NFL could create better Sunday match-ups

NEW YORK -- The NFL has its plan for eliminating those not-ready-for-prime-time matchups that too often sneaked onto national television.

The league plans to hold off scheduling Sunday night games in seven of the final eight weeks -- just as playoff races start
heating up -- to ensure the best games are played on NBC. The league has long wanted some kind of flexible scheduling, but could never implement one until now.

For Weeks 10-15 and Week 17, the final regular-season weekend, all Sunday games will be listed with start times of 1 p.m. or 4:05-4:15 p.m. ET.

The league must then announce which match will be played Sunday
night at least 12 days before the date of the game.

The lone exception is the season finale on Dec. 31, when the
switch must be made no later than six days before the game.

Only Sunday games are subject to the flexible schedule that is
part of the NFL's $3.6 billion contract with NBC for the Sunday
night package.

CBS, which does the AFC games, and Fox, which does the NFC, each has the option to protect five games in the seven weeks of flexible scheduling, but neither can protect more than one game per week. So if Indianapolis is playing Pittsburgh in a late-season game and CBS does not want it moved to Sunday night on NBC, it has an option to keep the game.

Week 16 is Christmas weekend, and no game will be switched.

Teams will be told by the NFL office as soon as they are not under consideration to have a game moved. And, unlike in the past, teams are allowed to play in consecutive Sunday night games.

To make the system more flexible, up to three teams each season will be allowed a bonus sixth prime-time appearance. All the others will be limited to a maximum of five, including the Monday night ESPN package and the late-season Saturday or Thursday games on NFL Network.

The NFL often has moved games from early afternoon to late
afternoon on Sundays to get a top matchup in a better viewing slot.
It did so eight times in 2005. That flexibility remains.

In recent seasons, the league has faced lower prime-time ratings because of poor late-season matchups. It also has seen surprisingly successful teams shut out of prime time because the entire schedule
is released in April.