Last week, the NFL raised a ruckus (certainly at the network where I work, NBC) by keeping the Baltimore-San Diego as the Week 15 Sunday night game on NBC, and keeping New England-Denver as a CBS Sunday afternoon game. Let me explain first why the league did that, then I'll tell you a few things about the gymnastics of which games go where.
When the flex schedule was established by the league for NBC's Sunday night package, it was done primarily to keep bad games (like some of the Monday-night clunkers we've seen) off of national TV on Sunday night. NBC paid for the right to flex out of a bad game. (More about why ESPN can't in a moment.) Flexing also gave teams rising from mediocrity (Detroit, for instance, eight days ago) the chance to play their way onto the Sunday night stage. And this is what NBC had hoped would happen when the league decided whether to keep the Ravens-Chargers as the Sunday night game or, as NBC wanted badly, to move the Patriots-Broncos, with the great Tebow story, to the night game, with Baltimore-San Diego moving to an afternoon start in San Diego.
NBC had a couple of good arguments. Denver had played its way into prime time, and Denver owner Pat Bowlen, a member of the NFL's Broadcast Committee, agreed. He wanted the game in prime time. New England is a big ratings attraction for NBC, and when the league flexed out of the New England-Indianapolis game a few weeks ago (understandably, obviously), NBC lost one of its two New England availabilities. Also, putting the game on CBS would mean it wouldn't be a national game. The New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Phoenix CBS affiliates will show their local teams' games and not Tebow-Brady. CBS, on the other hand, wanted to keep the game because of the Tebow factor and made its case to keep the game. And the case was a pretty good one: The Baltimore-San Diego game matched one team, following the Chargers' Monday night win at Jacksonville, that would enter the game one or two games out of the division lead, San Diego, against a team, Baltimore, likely to be tied for its division lead, in a dogfight with Pittsburgh. It didn't rise to the level of needing to take an A game to replace a B-plus game.
I can tell you this: The NFL would have moved Denver-New England to prime time if Jacksonville beat San Diego last Monday. There was still some internal debate to be had when San Diego won the game, but the NFL decided it couldn't justify taking the game from CBS.
Flex scheduling was designed with this primary objective -- to avoid a dog game. Baltimore-San Diego's not a dog at all. It's not Tebowmania, but those are the breaks.
Now, in the aftermath of the decision, it's been assumed that one of the league's powerful owners, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, had a major hand in keeping the game in the afternoon. An afternoon game in Mountain Time means the Patriots would get back to New England at about 2 a.m. If the game had been moved, their charter would return at about 6 a.m. Monday. With a Saturday afternoon game looming the following weekend, obviously the Patriots' preference would have been to play in the afternoon. I'm told two things reliably: Yes, Kraft did tell the league he wanted the game kept in the afternoon. No, Kraft did not strongarm the league in any way about it. "Categorically not,'' said a league source. "It's baloney. Whoever says that doesn't know what he's talking about.''
A few other network tidbits:
• ESPN flex. Many of you have emailed and Tweeted to ask why ESPN doesn't have the same kind of flex schedule. Answer: It's just impractical. It's one thing to move a game back four or seven hours to Sunday night. It's another to move a game, 12 days prior to it, 31 hours back. The hotels, the airplanes, the plans, the fans (inconvenienced enough by the movement from day to night and vice versa) ... It's just too much.
• Rulers. Who makes the final call on the Sunday night flex? NFL broadcast czar Howard Katz and commissioner Roger Goodell.
• Protected game. In early October, FOX and CBS must designate five games in the first six weeks of flex scheduling (and no more than one per network per week) that cannot be flexed to NBC. The Denver-New England game was not protected by CBS; the Jets-Eagles game that weekend was.
• Balancing act. There are 43 prime-time games per season -- 17 on ESPN, 18 on NBC and eight on NFL Network. The NFL cannot take more than 23 games per season away from either network. (CBS has AFC games and FOX the NFC games. In interconference games, most often, the road team dictates the network.)
• Long-term balancing act. This is year six of the eight-year contract with the networks. By the end of year eight, CBS and FOX must be nearly identical in the number of games they lose to prime time. I'm told it's pretty close to even right now so that shouldn't be a major factor in which games are shown in prime time in the next two seasons.
• Week 17. No network has the right to dictate time, and NBC is told which game will be on Sunday night. The NFL plots it to try to have a win-and-you're-in game as the last game of the year -- unless extenuating circumstances pop up. The Packers going for 16-0, for example; that might play a part in the league's decision