Find Out How NFL Opponents Are Determined in This Run Down

Close-Up Of American Football Ball On Field
The NFL Scheduling process is much more complicated than you might realize. Dan Thornberg / EyeEm / Getty Images

The National Football League (NFL) is a professional American division of 32 teams, divided between the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. These two conferences are then split evenly, with 16 teams being in each one. Within these two conferences, teams are equally split into North, East, South, and West divisions.

The NFL ranks fifth amongst domestic professional sports leagues across the globe by total attendance and is owned amongst 31 owners, which adds up to an outstanding 18 billionaires. There are 53 players on a professional football team, which is cut down from 90 during training camp. While this information may be obvious to die-hard football fans, the average Joe might just attend a game or two during football season or turn on the Super Bowl once a year to see the big game.

How Football Team Opponents Are Determined

On that note, while average Joe's and Jane's might wonder how opponents are chosen, even the biggest football fans are known to ask about the NFL's scheduling procedures, how a team's opponents are determined, and concerns about how it all plays out. Since the realignment that moved the NFL to an eight-division league, the scheduling format has recently become quite simple.

Here is a breakdown of the NFL's scheduling process:

  • Each team plays home and away against its three division opponents, which accounts for six games on the schedule.
  • Teams play four other teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle, which accounts for four more games.
  • Every team also plays four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle, which accounts for another four games. Simply put, every team will play each other every four years.
  • Finally, all teams play two intra-conference games based on the prior year's standings. For example, the first-place team in a division will play against the first-place team from another division within the same conference. The second place team in a division will play against the second-place team from another division within the same conference, and so on.

Who Sets the Ultimate Schedule

Every spring, four executives from the NFL take on the gigantic task of setting the NFL schedule for the next season. The makers of the schedule are comprised of Howard Katz (Senior Vice President of Broadcasting), Blake Jones (Director of Broadcasting), Charlotte Carey (Manager of Broadcasting), and Michael North (Senior Director of Broadcasting).

In doing so, they take account of the fans, league partners, and more. The schedule consists of 256 games over 17 weeks, not including the playoffs and Super Bowl. This means they have to consider events already taking place in or around NFL stadiums. Along with the stress of logistics, schedulers must also abide by the scheduling formula and its rotations so that every team definitely plays each other once, at a minimum, and in a span of four years.

After opponents are set, those making the schedule then plan out logistics on game plays, like location, time, and date. Premier time slots are on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights, so many broadcast partners aim for these prime times to get the biggest audiences to watch the game.