Inside The NFL Scheduling Formula

Inside The NFL Scheduling Formula

With the biggest NFL season in history approaching let’s take a look at the changes and how the NFL scheduling formula works. The full schedule will be released May 12th at 8:00pm EST. 

The NFL schedule can be difficult to understand. I see people all the time ask questions like “Why won’t there be a Super Bowl rematch this year?” Every football fan should understand how the schedule works. Tampa Bay and Kansas City have been scheduled to play in 2024 since the league started this cycle when they expanded to 32 teams back in 2002. Every offseason I see fans complaining about their team’s opponents and wondering why other teams got “easy schedules” if that’s you, no worries, I’ve even heard sports talk radio show hosts state that they don’t know how opponents are picked. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the NFL scheduling formula and how the 17th game works. It’s really quite simple. The NFL has a cycle in place ensuring that all 32 teams will play each other at least once every four years. I’ll use the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an example to show you who they’re playing and why. 

Home games:

1 Saints (divisional rival) 

2 Panthers (divisional rival)

3 Falcons (divisional rival)

4 Bears (2nd place NFC North) 

5 Cowboys (NFC East) 

6 Giants (NFC East) 

7 Bills (AFC East) 

8 Dolphins (AFC East) 

Away games: 


9 Saints (divisional rival) 

10 Panthers (divisional rival) 

11 Falcons (divisional rival) 

14 Rams (2nd place NFC West) 

15 Eagles (NFC East) 

16 Football Team (NFC East) 

15 Patriots (AFC East) 

16 Jets (AFC East) 

17 Colts (2nd Place AFC South) 

As you can see, they play a complete NFC division (NFC East) as well as a complete AFC division (AFC East). They cycle through the AFC, playing each division every four years and every three years for the NFC. Along with playing each team in their own division twice, this makes up 14 of the 17 games on their schedule. 

The next two games are played in conference against the other two divisions that they aren’t already playing. These games are decided by the previous season’s final divisional rankings. Since the Bucs finished second in the South, they play the North and West’s 2nd place finishers which are the Bears and Rams. Anyone can do a little bit of research and find out the opponents for their team five or 10 years from now other than those two games and the 17th game because they’re the only ones that aren’t on the cycle. These depend on the outcome of the regular season standings which delays the schedule making process until January. 

Same thing with the 17th game except it’s the 5th out of conference game. These games match a first-place team from one division against a first-place team in an opposite conference division that the team is not scheduled to play that season. The second-place, third-place and fourth-place teams in each division are matched in the same way each year which is why Tampa is playing the Colts who were 2nd place in the AFC South. It won’t continue being South vs South as the normal four year rotation will continue. The home conference for the extra game will rotate each season, this year it is the AFC. 

The NFL has a machine that makes thousands of schedules with the eligible opponents, which five of the league’s executives go over and begin the extensive process of narrowing it down to the best option. Their job is to try to maximize revenue as well as making sure that there are as few disadvantages to teams as possible. Everything from team’s traveling schedules, stadiums that are already booked for major events, international game travel and when teams have had their bye weeks gets taken into account. Prime time games are usually awarded to the teams and matchups that will garner the most viewership. There’s no such thing as a perfect schedule but I think they do a pretty decent job, considering how challenging of a task it is.


I hope this article gave you the “who” “why” “where” and “how” behind the all important NFL schedule. Thanks for reading and please pass this on to any fans that could benefit from this information. 

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