Creating the NFL Schedule

It takes hundreds of computers and five NFL executives to create the NFL’s 272-game masterpiece.

Each spring, six NFL executives take on an enormous task: creating the NFL schedule for the next season. 

The NFL schedule makers — Senior Vice President of Broadcasting Howard Katz, Senior Director of Broadcasting Blake Jones, Director of Broadcasting Charlotte Carey, Vice President of Broadcasting Michael North, Vice President of Broadcasting Onnie Bose, and Broadcasting Coordinator Nick Cooney — must consider the fans, the league’s broadcast partners and many other factors when building the 272-game schedule that spans the 18 weeks of the NFL season and showcases the league’s best matchups and talent.

Adding a new twist, beginning in the 2021 season, the NFL will move to a 17-game regular season as agreed to in the NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in March 2020.

The schedule makers will have to work around events that are already scheduled to take place in or near NFL stadiums — events that may compete with the games, put undue stress on the playing surface, or create traffic or logistical nightmares. The league begins collecting information from the clubs in January about any events that may create scheduling conflicts.

The schedulers are also constrained by internal factors. A formula determines each team’s opponents every year, and a rotating schedule ensures that every team plays each of the other 31 at least once in a four-year period.

It takes thousands of cloud-based computers to produce thousands of possible schedules — a process that sets the stage for the schedule makers to begin the arduous task of picking the best possible one.

THE ANATOMY OF THE NFL SCHEDULE

The NFL's scheduling formula ensures that all teams will play every team from every division in the other conference once every four years.

The NFL's scheduling formula ensures that all teams will play every team from every division in the other conference once every four years.

The league’s 32 teams are split into two conferences — the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). The 16 teams in each conference are split into the East, North, South and West divisions; every division has four teams.

Every team will play 17 regular-season games with one bye week. Teams will alternate seasons where they host nine regular-season games and one preseason game, or eight regular-season games and two preseason games. The AFC will have nine regular season home games in the 2021 season.

Here’s a breakdown of how each team’s opponents are set:

  • Six games against divisional opponents — two games per team, one at home and one on the road.
  • Four games against teams from a division within its conference — two games at home and two on the road.
  • Four games against teams from a division in the other conference— two games at home and two on the road.
  • Two games against teams from the two remaining divisions in its own conference — one game at home and one on the road. Matchups are based on division ranking from the previous season.
  • The new 17th game is an additional game against a non-conference opponent from a division that the team is not scheduled to play. Matchups are based on division ranking from the previous season.

Once every team’s opponents are set, the schedule makers begin the process of determining when every game will be played.

GAME TIMES AND BROADCAST PARTNERS

The league’s five broadcast partners (CBS, Fox, NBC, NFL Network and ESPN) all want each week’s best matchups to air on their networks so they can attract the largest audiences. 

The league’s five broadcast partners (CBS, Fox, NBC, NFL Network and ESPN) all want each week’s best matchups to air on their networks so they can attract the largest audiences. 

The NFL's marquee matchups often are scheduled to air during the week’s premier time slots — Thursday, Sunday or Monday nights or the late game on Sunday afternoons. The league typically schedules the Super Bowl champion at home for the Thursday night game that kicks off the new season.

The league will also schedule games on the Saturdays of Weeks 15, 16 and 18. In 2021, the Week 15 start times and matchups will be announced no later than four weeks prior to gameday. The Week 16 Saturday games will be set when the schedule is released, and the Week 18 Saturday games will be identified at the conclusion of Week 17.

Most NFL games are played on Sunday afternoons, with early games starting at 1:00 p.m. ET and the late games starting at either 4:05 p.m. ET or 4:25 p.m. ET, depending on whether the game is part of a network doubleheader.

The Sunday afternoon games are broadcast on Fox (NFC) and CBS (AFC); most games with AFC road teams are shown on CBS, and most of those with NFC road teams are broadcast on Fox.

For the first time, the season will open and close with doubleheaders on both CBS and FOX and every market will see four Sunday afternoon games in Weeks 1 and 18. Over Weeks 2-17, Fox and CBS will each get eight doubleheaders. In those weeks, one network will show games in both Sunday afternoon time slots, while the other will air only one game in either of the two time slots. Doubleheader weeks generally alternate between networks; but not always. It is possible for one network to have doubleheaders on consecutive weeks, but not three weeks in a row.

INTERNATIONAL SERIES

The Oakland Raiders hosted the New England Patriots at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in 2017. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

The Oakland Raiders hosted the New England Patriots at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in 2017. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

In 2007, the NFL added a new twist to the scheduling process: the NFL International Series.

Beginning in 2022, each team is guaranteed to play internationally at least once every eight years. In addition to current existing games in Mexico and the United Kingdom, the league will schedule international games in Canada, South America, and more European cities. Clubs can still volunteer to play home games abroad if they choose, just as they have been able to in previous seasons.

Scheduling these matchups presents a challenge for the schedule makers, which is why setting the International Series games is a particular focus early in the process.

Schedule makers then look at a three-week window around the international games to try to find ways to make long travel less of a burden on the teams. For example, a West Coast team may play on the East Coast the week before a London game and then practice there for the week leading up to the game. Teams usually will have their bye week after an international game.

The 2021 season will feature two games played in London’s Tottenham Stadium, one in Week 5 and one in Week 6.

FLEX SCHEDULING

The NFL introduced “flexible scheduling” in 2006 to make sure the best late-season matchups reach the largest audiences. This “flexing” involves moving a game from its scheduled Sunday afternoon slot on CBS or Fox to primetime and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” 

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

The NFL consults with CBS, Fox and NBC to determine which games will be flexed. The league reserves the right to move the start times of Sunday games as long as it provides the affected teams and ticket-holding fans with reasonable notice. 

Flex scheduling will be used in Weeks 5-18. 

In Weeks 5-17, the schedule lists the games tentatively set for Sunday Night Football on NBC. Flex scheduling does not apply to Thursday, Monday or Saturday games. The NFL can also move Sunday afternoon games between the 1 p.m. ET and the 4:05 p.m. ET or 4:25 p.m. ET time slots. In Week 18, the league can flex a game with playoff implications on six days’ notice.

In 2014, the league introduced “cross-flexing,” which allows a select number of games annually that would have typically aired on Fox or CBS to be aired on the other Sunday afternoon network. That means, for example, that an all-AFC matchup could air on Fox and an all-NFC game could appear on CBS. An equal number of games must be cross-flexed: if CBS airs three games originally slated for Fox, then Fox would have to get three games that would have originally aired on CBS.

GREATER ACCESS IN COMING SEASONS

In the league’s 2021 agreement with its broadcasting partners, fans will have unprecedented access to more games each week, which will affect the schedule process beginning in 2023. 

  • Monday Night Football games subject to flexible scheduling beginning in Week 12.
  • Two additional Monday Night Football doubleheaders.
  • Saturday doubleheaders in the final week of the season featuring matchups with playoff implications.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD SCHEDULE?

Each team has one bye week between Weeks 6 and 14. Determining where that bye week falls for each team presents additional challenges for the schedule makers.

For example, the league tries to limit the number of times a team that played the week before has to face a team coming off its bye.

The schedule makers also consider where a team’s bye week fell in past seasons. A team with an early bye week one year will receive consideration for a later bye week the next season. 

Even after all the factors have been weighed and the schedule is produced, the league occasionally has to make adjustments on short notice.

A rare November blizzard in Buffalo in 2014 prompted the league to move the Bills’ Week 12 home game against the New York Jets — originally a Sunday game in Orchard Park — to Monday of the same week in Detroit’s Ford Field.

A rare November blizzard in Buffalo in 2014 prompted the league to move the Bills’ Week 12 home game against the New York Jets — originally a Sunday game in Orchard Park — to Monday of the same week in Detroit’s Ford Field.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma caused the league to postpone the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Week 1 game in Miami against the Dolphins in the interest of public safety. While not ideal, the teams both had a Week 11 bye, so the game was played that week and they had an unexpected Week 1 bye.

With games on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays, the schedule makers have to allow enough time between games so teams are not at a disadvantage against an opponent that has had more time to prepare and rest. Teams scheduled to play on Thursday nights will not have to play a short week more than once a season.

The league tries to limit the number of consecutive road games any team plays to two games, with emphasis at the beginning and end of the season. Sometimes, however, the schedule makers cannot avoid placing a team on the road for three straight weeks.

Schedule makers also work to avoid putting teams in a position where they cross the country too often over a short period of time or endure inordinate travel that may put the players at a competitive disadvantage compared with the club they’re playing.

The league tries to avoid scheduling teams that play on the road on Monday nights with an away game the following week to avoid having two road games separated by a short week.

The process is challenging, and there may be no such thing as a perfect schedule, but the schedule makers consistently provide the NFL’s fans and broadcast partners with a compelling and entertaining slate of games week after week.

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