A Brief Explanation of How the NFL Schedule is Made

(Last Updated On: June 1, 2018)

Who does make the NFL Schedule anyway?

The NFL Schedule

Are you ready for some football? It might seem like the Super Bowl just ended, but planning for next NFL season is already in full swing. While players and coaches evaluate their next moves and prepare for the draft and training camp, league executives are also busy. They are given the not so easy task of determining the NFL schedule for the upcoming season.

If 256 games in 17 weeks sounds like a lot to plan, it is. Many factors must be considered before the final schedule is announced. The process can be a lot to wrap one’s head around, but worry not. Here is all you need to know about how the NFL schedule is made.

The Basics

The NFL has a few general rules to help determine which teams will play each other.

  • There are four teams in each NFL division. A team will always play the other teams in their division twice – once at home and once on the road. This accounts for 6 of the games on a team’s schedule.
  • Each of the four teams in one division will play games against each of the teams in another division from their conference. The league rotates these divisions each year. This ensures that the teams in one division will play the teams in every other division in their conference once every three years.
  • Every team plays one game against each of the four teams from a division in the other conference. These match-ups are also determined by a rotation. Teams will play every team from every division in the other conference once every four years.
  • Each team plays two games against opponents from the two remaining divisions in their conference. Who each team plays is determined by where teams finished in their divisions during the previous season. A first place team, for example, will play against the other first place finishers from the other two divisions.

These guidelines help set which opponents a team will face, but there are other factors that need to be taken into account as well.

Other Considerations

The league has computers in a secure room that spit out thousands upon thousands of possibilities for the NFL schedule. Four league executives get to choose the one they think is best – Senior Vice President of Broadcasting Howard Katz, Director of Broadcasting Blake Jones, Manager of Broadcasting Charlotte Carey and Senior Director of Broadcasting Michael North.

Picking the right NFL schedule is the hard part. Here are just a few things the league execs have to consider:

  • The Fans – It is important that the league considers match-ups that fans actually want to see. At the end of the day, the NFL is entertainment, and the league wants to make sure they put an entertaining product out on the field.
  • The Teams – The league has to be mindful of the number of consecutive home or road games a team plays. They try to avoid having a team play on the road three straight weeks, for example. They also take travel into consideration, and do what they can to ensure a team is not making too many cross-country trips.
  • Broadcast Partners – The league doesn’t only have to make the fans happy. They also have to make sure they create match-ups that their television broadcast partners will be excited to show.
  • Other Events – Non-football events need to be considered as well. Are there events that could compete with games? Will traffic be bad because of a nearby event? Does Beyoncé have any Sunday concerts?  The league makes sure to gather information from teams about any potential events that could cause conflicts.

When and Where?

Once the match-ups are set, the league must begin the challenging task of determining when and where every game will be played.

Most games are played on Sundays, with early games starting at 1:00 pm ET, and the late games starting at either 4:05 pm ET or 4:25 pm ET. The NFL’s best match-ups often are scheduled to air during the week’s premier time slots – Thursday, Sunday or Monday nights.

Times are not always set in stone, however, even after the NFL schedule is officially released. The NFL sometimes will move games times around on Sunday afternoons. Furthermore, in an effort to make sure the best match-ups at the end of the season are broadcast to the biggest audience, ‘flex scheduling’ was introduced by the NFL in 2006. This allows the league to move a game from its scheduled Sunday afternoon time to a prime time evening spot on ‘NBC Sunday Night Football.’

Then there is the whole issue of bye weeks. Each team has one week between weeks 4 and 11 where they do not play a game. A bye week can be a great advantage for a team looking to get rested or healthy, so the league must take this into account when assigning them. They will try to limit the number of times one particular team has to play opponents coming off bye weeks.

The Perfect Schedule

As with most things in life, nothing is perfect. Even with the countless hours of reviewing computer generated schedules, picking the right one can be near impossible. Someone will always feel slighted or like they got a raw deal. At the end of the day though, the executives tasked with making these important decisions will have to pick the schedule they feel presents the most interesting and entertaining games. Given the high ratings of NFL broadcasts, I’d say they’ve been pretty successful at doing so.

About the Author:

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.