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How NFL Determines Regular Season Matchups

Updated on April 20, 2010

NFL Matchups

This article will discuss how the National Football League (NFL) schedules every team's 16 regular season games and how they determine which team will play against each other. Whether you are a casual fan, hardcore fan or beginner learning about the NFL, this article will give you an insight on the scheduling matchups for the season. These matchups are determined by the following four ways:

  1. Games in Own Division
  2. Games in Another Division Within Own Conference (Rotation)
  3. Games in Another Division Outside Own Conference (Rotation)
  4. Games in Standing Within Own Conference

These four types of matchups will be discussed in more detail further on in this article.

Once the schedule has been made, each team will be a ranked in terms of Schedule of Strength which assesses how easy or hard a schedule a team plays. A ranking of #1 means it is a tough schedule in comparison to a ranking of #32 which means it is the easiest schedule. Click here to learn more about Schedule of Strength.

The NFL has 2 conferences called the AFC (American Football Conference) and the NFC (National Football Conference) and each conference has 4 divisions within the NFL. The table below shows a total of 32 NFL football teams in both the AFC and NFC and will be used for illustration purposes.

AFC Conference

AFC West
AFC North
AFC East
AFC South
San Diego Chargers
Pittsburgh Steelers
New England Patriots
Indianapolis Colts
Denver Broncos
Cincinnatti Bengals
New York Jets
Houston Texans
Oakland Raiders
Baltimore Ravens
Miami Dolphins
Tennessee Titans
Kansas City Chiefs
Cleveland Browns
Buffalo Bills
Jacksonville Jaguars

NFC Conference

NFC West
NFC North
NFC East
NFC South
San Franciso 49ers
Minnesota Vikings
Dallas Cowboys
New Orleans Saints
Arizona Cardinals
Green Bay Packers
New York Giants
Carolina Panthers
St Louis Rams
Detroit Lions
Philadelphia Eagles
Atlanta Falcons
Seattle Seahawks
Chicago Bears
Washington Redskins
Tamba Bay Buccaneers

Please refer to the table above to illustrate how the NFL sets up the matchups for the regular season.

1) Games in Own Division

A total of 6 games (one home and one away) will be played against 3 teams in their own division.

Example: Let's use the New Orleans Saints as an example. The Saints will play a home game against the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers and will play an away game against the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers.

2) Games in Another Division Within Own Conference (Rotation)

A total of 4 games (two home and two away) will be played against 4 teams within their own conference, but against another division.

Example: Since the New Orleans Saints are in the NFC Conference, the Saints will play the NFC East for the current season based on rotation as last season, the Saints played the NFC West and next year the Saints will play the NFC North teams. This means that the Saints would play the Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins once. The Saints would have 2 home games and 2 away games against the NFC East opponents.

3) Games in Another Division Outside Own Conference (Rotation)

A total of 4 games (two home and two away) will be played against 4 teams in a division outside their own conference.

Example: Since the New Orleans Saints are in the NFC Conference, the Saints will play against a division in the AFC based on rotation. Last year, the Saints played the AFC East, this year they will play the AFC West teams, the next year would be AFC North and the year after would be AFC South.

For the current season the Saints will play the AFC West teams consisting of the Chargers, Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders. The Saints would have 2 home games and 2 away games against the AFC West opponents.

4) Games in Standing Matchups Within Conference

A total of 2 games (one home and one away) will be played against 2 teams in their own conference, but outside of their division.

Example: Since the Saints finished 1st in their own division the NFC South, they will play a game against the other division's number one ranked teams. If the team finished 2nd in their own division, they will play the other division's 2nd ranked teams. The 3rd place teams will play 3rd place teams and the 4th place team will play the other 4th place teams outside their division, but within the same conference.

The Saints will play the 49ers and Vikings on their current schedule and the Saints would play 1 home game and 1 away game against these teams.

A grand total of 16 games has been shown for the Saints with eight home games and eight away games. See the table below which shows a sample schedule the Saints would play in a regular season.

New Orleans Saints Sample NFL Schedule

(click column header to sort results)
Game  
Opponent  
Division  
Home/Away  
Matchup Scenario  
1
Dallas Cowboys
NFC East
Home
Conference Division Game
2
Carolina Panthers
NFC South
Home
Own Division Game
3
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC South
Away
Own Division Game
4
New York Giants
NFC East
Away
Conference Division Game
5
San Francisco 49ers
NFC West
Home
Standings Game
6
San Diego Chargers
AFC West
Home
Out of Conference Division Game
7
Atlanta Falcons
NFC South
Away
Own Division Game
8
Minnesota Vikings
NFC North
Away
Standings Game
9
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC South
Home
Own Division Game
10
Denver Broncos
AFC West
Home
Out of Conference Division Game
11
Oakland Raiders
AFC West
Away
Out of Conference Division Game
12
Carolina Panthers
NFC South
Away
Own Division Game
13
Kansas City Chiefs
AFC West
Away
Out of Conference Division Game
14
Philadelphia Eagles
NFC East
Home
Conference Division Game
15
Washington Redskins
NFC East
Away
Conference Division Game
16
Atlanta Falcons
NFC South
Home
Own Division Game
This is only a sample schedule and used for illustration purpose for a typical NFL regular season for the New Orleans Saints

Summary

(click column header to sort results)
Type of Matchup  
Number of Games  
Home and Away Games  
Own Division Games
6
3 home, 3 away
Conference Division Games
4
2 home, 2 away
Ouf of Conference Division Games
4
2 home and 2 away
Standings Games
2
1 home and 1 away
Total Games
16
8 home and 8 away games

Conclusions

This has been the formula used by the NFL to schedule regular season games in the NFL. If the NFL decides to expand or decrease the number of teams or increase the regular season schedule to 18 games, then the scheduling formula needs readjustment. Hope you have enjoyed this article.

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