Will you be able to watch your favorite NFL team this weekend? The answer lies in the NFL’s television schedule, which varies based on your location. Some NFL games air nationally, most are broadcast regionally, and some, like NFL preseason games, are carried by a small number of local affiliates, as well as NFL Network and NFL+. Read on to learn more about which NFL games you will be able to watch this weekend.
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In a perfect world, we as sports fans would be able to watch any game we please regardless of where we live.
However, the NFL, and the TV deals it cuts with media giants like Amazon, Disney, Viacom, and FOX are big business (the NFL earns an estimated $113 billion licensing its TV rights), and the broadcasting pie gets cut up in many different slices, which often means confusing schedules for football fans.
Let’s talk about why your zip code matters for watching the NFL, as well as some rules to keep in mind when planning which games will be broadcast nationally.
The NFL’s nationally televised games
To keep things simple, let’s start with the national NFL lineup of games. These are the games that everyone, regardless of zip code, gets to see.
Thursday Night Football (Amazon Prime / local affiliates / NFL+)
As part of its newest TV contract, the NFL has agreed to terms with Amazon to exclusively broadcast Thursday Night Football starting this season. Thursday Night Football games will air on Amazon Prime, local affiliates in the city’s of the home and away teams, and on NFL+ for mobile and tablet devices only.
Sunday Night Football (NBC / Peacock / NFL+)
Each Sunday after the 1 pm and 4 pm kickoffs have ended, Sunday Night Football on NBC features a game that is broadcast nationwide to all markets.
Monday Night Football (ABC/ ESPN / NFL+)
The iconic game that started the nationally televised NFL trend that gave rise to Thursday and Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football is a featured game every week on ESPN that is broadcast to the entire nation. Starting in 2023, Monday Night Football games can be flexed, meaning the NFL can slot in teams deemed most likely to draw a big audience. You can see the wisdom here in light of the sheer dollars that are involved with the NFL these days. If a team that was originally slotted to play on Monday Night at the beginning of the season is having a bad year, or conversely, a Cinderella team is on an unexpected run, the powers that be may want the option to change course and show the game that has the most buzz, which in turn, offers the best showcase for advertisers.
Thanksgiving Day Game (FOX / NBC / NFL+)
No pun intended, but these games are “baked in” based on tradition. The Detroit Lions always play the early game on FOX, followed by the Cowboys, also on FOX.
In recent years, NBC has slated in an 8:30 kickoff on Thanksgiving night.
NFL Playoffs and Super Bowl (CBS / FOX / Paramount+ / NFL+)
The NFL Playoffs are always broadcast nationally across several channels.
The core channels for the playoffs are still CBS, FOX, and ABC/ESPN, but streaming platforms like Paramount+ and Peacock also play a big role, and even Nickelodeon has started airing one playoff game annually.
The important part for NFL fans is that the playoffs aren’t broadcast by region. If you’re a cord cutter, choose a live TV streaming service with care as not all will carry the channels you need to tune into every playoff game.
In-market fans vs. Out-of-market fans
Now, let’s get into the aspect of NFL TV games that confuses just about everyone, the regional and local games. To understand how this works, the first concept to nail down is the in-market vs. out-of-market fan distinction.
An in-market fan is a fan who lives in the same TV market as their favorite team, or in a TV market that lacking an NFL franchise, picks up the nearest, and most popular franchise’s games.
The classic in-market scenario is easier to identify. For example, if you are a Ravens fan and live in Baltimore, then you will almost always be able to tune into watch the Ravens on either your local CBS or FOX affiliate.
Out-of-market fans are fans who don’t live in the same city as their favorite teams. This was me when I was living in NYC. The New York market would broadcast the Giants or the Jets, not the Lions. As an out-of-market fan, my only option was to buy NFL Sunday Ticket, or go to a bar that carried the package.
When you think about it, the arrangement makes sense for the most fans, advertisers, and team owners. With the exception of national brands, like the Dallas Cowboys, most fan bases for most teams are concentrated in the metro area where the team is based. The Lions should be broadcast in Detroit, and the Bears in Chicago, that is what most of the fans want and expect.
So, as a general rule, for your run of the mill 1 p.m. kickoffs, you can expect to see a regional broadcast that features teams in your region. With fewer games in the time slot, the late afternoon, 4 p.m. kickoffs, draw larger audiences from bigger swaths of the country.
Regional NFL games where zip code determines coverage
To illustrate this point, I have embedded a couple maps from the excellent site, 506 Sports, which keeps track of regional coverage maps each NFL season.
The first map is from Week 9 of the 2021 NFL season. The map below shows the regional coverage for CBS early kickoffs on November 7, 2021.
To go back to my out-of-state, but in-market example above, Wyoming still was able to watch the Broncos in week 9, but they had to tune in on FOX rather than CBS, since FOX had the TV rights to the Cowboys game in this case.
Notice the mosaic of coverage across the country. The intra Ohio game, Cleveland vs. Cincinnati is playing in Texas and Arizona, and yet Browns fans in Arizona can’t hang their hat on the ability to see the Browns every week since they are most definitely out-of-market.
The point to illustrate is that the 1 p.m. kickoffs are highly regional, and the regional borders, once you go beyond the local market where the team’s stadium is located, are subject to change week to week based on bye weeks, the national calendar, and when your team has a cross-over matchup with an out of conference team, as the Bengals and Browns did in week 9 of 2021.
1 p.m. Sunday regular season games
NFL franchises would have a lot less value if a large number of them were routinely blacked out in favor of national games. The regional 1 p.m. game is a logical way to build the NFL TV schedule to make sure that every team’s games will be televised to their hometown fans.
These games represent the majority of NFL kickoffs and are usually smaller regional broadcasts.
4 p.m. kickoffs are a national / regional hybrid
Most NFL regular season games kickoff at 1 p.m., but a significant number each week, usually 2-4 games, kickoff at 4 p.m. Let’s look at the 506 Sports coverage map for week 9 of the NFL season in 2021 for the late afternoon games on FOX.
As you can see, the map becomes much simpler, and the coverage far more broad, with FOX viewers getting either the Packers game or the 49ers game. Because there are fewer games at the 4 p.m. time slot, the coverage becomes more national, with a huge chunk of the country getting the Packers.
The 4 p.m. kickoff games aren’t national, however, they are televised a lot more like national games than are the 1 p.m. kickoffs.
Why Preseason games are so confusing to watch
Perhaps of all NFL games, preseason games are the most confusing to watch. For example, in the screenshot below, I added a screenshot of Google’s “TV and streaming” options for a preseason game between the Dolphins and Buccaneers. The TV options are listed as ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC, but every channel is listed as “not available in your region.” How can this be?
Because in-market NFL preseason games aren’t carried regionally, they are only carried locally on a handful of local affiliates.
So, is Google search wrong?
It is technically correct that an ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX affiliate has the Dolphins vs. Bucs game, but only in hyper local broadcasts that most fans don’t have access to.
For the majority of NFL fans, the go to viewing options for the preseason are NFL Network and NFL+. Don’t be thrown off by the national channels showing up as carrying the games.
What this means for cord cutters
The problem for cord cutters is reliably being able to watch their favorite team. If you are an NFL fan who doesn’t mind watching whatever the hot game is independent of any one team, the current TV structure works perfectly for you.
If you want to watch your favorite team on a regular basis, and you’re an in-market fan, we have listed the live TV streaming providers that carry the relevant channels, both for regional and national games, below. Keep in mind that CBS has the rights to most AFC games and FOX to NFC games.
If you are an out-of-market fan, and want to follow your favorite team throughout the entire season, NFL Sunday Ticket or NFL Sunday Ticket.TV is the best option.