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The NFL Schedule: How Is It Made?

Orchestrating a 256-game schedule for the entire NFL is no small task. Take a look at what goes into this effort, and join the conversation on Battle Red Blog.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

We already know the opponents that the Houston Texans will face for the 2017 NFL regular season:

HOME: Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs.

AWAY: Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots.

However, we still don’t know on which dates, times or broadcast networks that these games will be played. That information will be announced by the NFL on April 18th at 7 p.m. CST. Be sure to tune in right here to Battle Red Blog, as we’ll have this information posted as quickly as possible so that you can start planning your NFL experience at home or on the road as you cheer on your Houston Texans.

It takes 136 computers and four NFL executives to create the NFL's 256-game masterpiece.

Your favorite NFL team(s) will play sixteen regular season games again in 2017. Will there be any “prime time” tilts against a big rival? Will any of them be played at international venues? How does the NFL figure all of this out to ensure that other events like high school playoffs, college bowl games, concerts, monster truck rallies, boat shows, and other popular activities don’t conflict with the NFL games? Well, let’s take a look. provided insight into the incredibly complex activity involved in scheduling games for each season.

They 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.

It takes 136 computers in a secure room to spit out every possible schedule — a process that sets the stage for the schedule-makers to begin the arduous task of picking the best possible one.


There is a formula in place to ensure that each team plays the other 31 teams at least once every four years, and that each team plays their division opponents twice each season.

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.

Here’s how each team’s opponents are set:

Every team plays six games against the other three teams in its division, facing off twice per season — once at home and once on the road.

Every team plays one game against each of the four teams from a division within its conference — two games at home and two on the road. Which division a team plays is determined by a rotation system ensuring that the teams in one division will play the teams in every other division in its conference once every three years.

Every team plays one game against each of the four teams from a division in the other conference once per season — two games at home and two on the road. These matchups are also determined by a rotation, which ensures that all teams play every team from every division in the other conference once every four years.

Every team plays its remaining two games against teams from the two remaining divisions in its own conference — one game at home and the other on the road. The matchups are determined by where the teams finished in their divisions in the previous season. For example, a team that finished the previous year in third place in its division will play the third-place teams from the two other divisions in its conference.


The massive salaries paid to these elite athletes are fueled heavily by contracts between the NFL and its broadcast partners. In order to fulfill those contracts, and in an obvious effort to generate strong viewership ratings, there is a detailed process applied here as well.

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. In 2015 the league will also schedule games on the Saturdays of weeks 15 and 16.

Most NFL games are played on Sunday afternoons, with early games starting at 1:05 p.m. ETand 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). Interconference games with AFC road teams are shown on CBS; those with NFC road teams are broadcast on Fox.

Over the first 16 weeks of the season, Fox and CBS will each get eight doubleheaders — meaning that one will show games during both Sunday afternoon time slots, while the other airs a game in only one. Typically they alternate doubleheader weeks; occasionally other events, like the World Series, cause them to swap weeks. While this may result in one network airing doubleheaders on consecutive weeks, the league prohibits either network from airing doubleheaders three weeks in a row.


Many NFL teams go through significant changes each year that can affect the performance of the team in a given season. Sometimes there are coaching changes that bring vast transformations of the systems being run by the offense, defense or special teams units. Sometimes star players are lost to free agency or retire due to age and/or injuries, while other times star players are acquired via free agency or the NFL draft. The unexpected results, both good and bad, can greatly affect the ratings for a particular game scheduled later in the season. To address this, the NFL and broadcast partners have enabled “flexible scheduling.”

To make sure the best matchups at the end of the season are broadcast to the largest audiences, the NFL introduced “flexible scheduling” in 2006. This involves moving a game from its scheduled Sunday afternoon slot on CBS or Fox to the prime time hours of “NBC Sunday Night Football.”

The NFL consults with CBS, Fox and NBC to determine which games will be flexed, and the league reserves the right to move the start times of Sunday games as long as it provides the teams affected and ticket-holding fans with 12 days’ notice. In week 17, the league can flex a game with playoff implications with only six days’ notice.


How can the league try to provide a period of rest for each team while also ensuring that scheduling doesn’t create what could be deemed as an unfair competitive advantage by facing too many opponents who are coming off a bye week in a given season?

Each team has one bye week between weeks 4 and 12. 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 rested team coming off its bye. The additional rest could be seen as a competitive advantage for the team coming off the bye.

With games on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays, the schedule-makers have to allow enough time between games so teams aren’t 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 on a short week more than once a season.

The league tries to limit the number of consecutive home or road games any team plays to two games, though unavoidable situations have forced the schedule-makers to place a team at home or on the road for three straight weeks.


This scheduling effort also takes into account the effect of traveling to international venues and traveling from one coast to the other. There is a concerted effort to avoid too many extreme occurrences of that happening in the same season and to utilize the bye-week as a buffer for extreme distances when possible as well.

Schedule-makers also work to avoid putting teams in a position where they have to cross the country too often over a short period of time or endure inordinate amounts of 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.

What about the teams that have to travel to London?

The bye week for the teams in these games will follow their trip to London, ensuring that the players have adequate time off before their next game to adjust to the time change and recover from the travel.

Are the Super Bowl champions factored into the planning for the following season?

The league typically schedules the Super Bowl champion at home for the Thursday night game that kicks off the new season.

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.

There you have it—the method behind the madness in orchestrating a 256-game season of NFL football.

Do you have any best guesses on how many prime-time games the Texans might play in 2017? Are there any games you are hoping to attend at home or on the road? Share your thoughts in the comments below.