How is the NFL Schedule Set?

A lot of you may be wondering just how the NFL Schedule gets set each and every year.  To the casual observer, it may seem like a random selection of opponents for any given team, but believe it or not, there is quite a bit of structure to it. Let’s start with the basics.

The NFL is divided into two conferences, the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference.  Within each conference are 16 teams, and those 16 teams are divided further into four conferences with four teams each (4 x 4 = 16). So now it looks something like this.

American Football Conference (AFC)

  • North
  • South
  • East
  • West

National Football Conference (NFC)

  • North
  • South
  • East
  • West

Each NFL team plays 16 games in a season and when you see how the schedule is determined, it will actually start to make some sense. Let’s keep things easy and pretend that we are a team from the AFC North. Last season, we finished in second place in the division (this is important to note, because some of the NFL scheduling is based on last year’s results).

There are 4 main criteria that make up the NFL Schedule.

  1. Play each team in your own division twice – once at home and once on the road (6 games)
    1. This one is fairly self explanatory
  2. Play each team from a division within your own conference once – e.g. the AFC South (4 games)
    1. This rotates each year, so in year 1, you will play the AFC South; year 2, you will play the AFC East; year 3, you will play the AFC West; year 4, you will play the AFC South again
  3. Play each team from a division outside of your own conference once – e.g. the NFC East (4 games)
    1. This rotates each year, so in year 1, you will play the NFC East; year 2,  you will play the NFC West, year 3, you will play the NFC North; year 4, you will play the NFC South; year 5, you will play the NFC East again
  4. Play the teams from the remaining two divisions in your own conference that finished last year in the same position as you (2 games)
    1. This is probably the most complicated piece of the puzzle so we saved it for last. Remember, we finished second in the AFC North and we are already playing the AFC South (see step 2). That means that we have not played anyone from the AFC East or AFC West yet – and since we finished in second place, we will play the teams that finished the previous year in second place from those divisions.

So there you have it.  When anyone asks you how the NFL schedule is made up, you can fill them in.  It’s also pretty cool to know what matchups your favorite NFL Team will be facing in the upcoming year.

About Aaron Garcia

Aaron is an avid sports fan who passionately follows the NFL, NBA and MLB, in addition to NCAA Sports. He is an Arizona State University grad who loves the Dodgers and the Patriots.

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