With the Garoppolo-less 49ers due to play in prime time once again in Week 13, the NFL knew that it needed to activate the flex option. The only problem? There were no good flex options.
Vikings-Patriots sits in the primary 4:25 p.m. ET slot, a game that presumably had been protected by FOX against a prime-time flexing. Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten previously explained on social media that the Chargers-Steelers game, due to begin at 1:00 p.m. ET on CBS, had been protected against flexing, too.
But no other game merited a national audience in prime time. Ravens-Falcon, Panthers-Bucs, Bears-Giants, Bills-Dolphins, Colts-Jaguars, Browns-Texans, Broncos-Bengals, Rams-Lions, Cardinals-Packers, Chiefs-Raiders, and Jets-Titans were the other choices.
Per a league source with knowledge of the situation, the NFL worked with CBS to remove the protection and move into prime time a game that would have been available, at best, to 25-30 percent of the county. This meshes with one of the reasons for the creation of flexible scheduling: To allow teams to play their way into prime time, and to allow the NFL to bring the best possible matchups to the broadest audience.
It was the right move, without question. Apart from the obvious benefit to NBC and the league via increased ratings for a game between two of the best teams in the NFL, the fans benefit by getting the best available matchups, with Vikings-Patriots also available to a wide swath of the nation in the late afternoon.
The Chargers benefit as well. Instead of kicking off at 10:00 a.m, local time, it will be a 5:20 p.m. PT start.
And while the Steelers have expressed a preference to have fewer night games at home, the problem last year arose from having a cluster of late-season prime-time games in Pittsburgh. This Chargers game will be the third of the year at night in Pittsburgh, but they will have been spread from Week Four to Week 10 to Week 13.
The only other potential night game would come in Week 17, when the Steelers host the Bengals. But that would have to be a game for the AFC North crown, at a minimum, to trigger the flex.