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NFL to set time for Patriots-Broncos

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 7, 2011
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Tebow Mania, the increasingly frenzied phenomenon regarding polarizing, unorthodox, and usually victorious Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, has hit a new peak, with an assist from Tom Brady and the Patriots.

CBS and NBC, the networks with the rights and the intention to broadcast the much-anticipated Dec. 18 matchup between the Broncos and Patriots, spent yesterday in a tug-of-war over which will ultimately show the game.

Despite a midnight deadline to determine whether the game would be “flexed’’ from a 4:15 p.m start on CBS’s Sunday schedule to NBC’s prime-time “Sunday Night Football’’ time slot, the matter was not settled.

The NFL announced last night it will determine this morning which network will carry the game.

NBC wants to utilize its contractual right with the NFL to move the game to Sunday night, replacing the scheduled matchup between the 9-3 Ravens and 5-7 Chargers.

Such a late-season maneuver is not out of the ordinary. The NFL utilizes flexible scheduling in Weeks 10-15 and 17 to ensure it has appealing prime-time matchups.

Losing compelling games can be a source of frustration to CBS, which has AFC broadcast rights, and Fox, which carries NFC games, but resistance is rare.

But this game is justifiably coveted. With the charismatic Tebow, who has led the Broncos to five straight victories, squaring off against Brady, the marquee player on a marquee franchise, the game is certain to be a ratings blockbuster.

It became increasingly evident yesterday, as the hours passed without an announcement, that CBS was attempting to keep the game. Flex scheduling rules state that teams must be notified whether they will be moved into the Sunday night time slot at least 12 days before the game, meaning midnight Tuesday is the deadline. Typically, the announcement comes on a Monday.

Since flex scheduling was implemented in 2006, there have been no documented instances of a decision held until a Wednesday.

The decision will be made by the NFL, and it will be fascinating to learn which network it chooses. Conventional wisdom suggests the league would want Patriots-Broncos in prime time, though the late-afternoon time slot on CBS or Fox is usually its biggest ratings draw.

CBS and Fox can protect one game per week from being flexed, and CBS already protected Sunday’s Eagles-Jets matchup weeks ago, when that game had considerably more luster.

CBS, however, could be excused for believing it is owed a break, having been flexed out of a Broncos/Tebow game just last Sunday. The Patriots’ matchup with the winless Colts, originally scheduled for “Sunday Night Football,’’ was moved to an afternoon game on CBS. The Saints-Lions game, scheduled for 1 p.m. on Fox, was moved to NBC. Because Fox had just two games to choose from in the early window, it was permitted by the league to take the Broncos-Vikings game from CBS.

Adding more intrigue to the situation was a report by the Denver Post that Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was in New York for the NFL committee meetings, was making a case on CBS’s behalf and that the matter may have been resolved Monday had he not become involved.

The Kraft Group, of which he is founder, chairman, and CEO, is partnered with CBS in a restaurant venture at Patriot Place in Foxborough.

A source with the Patriots said Kraft, the chairman of the league’s broadcast committee, is sympathetic to both sides but may have some reservations about how a time change would affect the team’s travel plans back from Denver.

A spokesman for the Broncos said the team had no preference for when the game is played.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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