How the NFL’s New 17th Game Will Be Determined for Each Team

The league's proposed formula will produce some marquee interconference matchups for the 2021 season

Patrick Mahomes looks to pass
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will host the Green Bay Packers in the NFL's proposed 17th regular-season game in 2021
Jamie Squire/Getty

Though it may sometimes seem like it, the NFL’s regular-season schedule is not created by drawing ping-pong balls out of a BINGO machine at the league’s office on Park Avenue in New York City.

In fact, each franchise’s schedule is almost entirely predetermined years in advance other than whether games will be played at home or away. Here’s the formula:

  • Six games (home and away) against divisional opponents
  • Four games against a complete out-of-conference division (which rotates each season)
  • Four games against a complete in-conference division (which rotates each season)
  • Two games against the teams that finished in the same standing in the two remaining in-conference divisions the previous season

We say almost entirely because of those two in-conference games, which are meant to pair teams against similar competition, and thus help ensure the high degree of “parity” upon which the league prides itself (though it should be noted that those games are often blowouts, since the NFL’s elite tend to see so much turnover from year to year).

Parity also seems to be the goal of the NFL’s latest scheduling decision: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced today that the league will be adding a 17th regular-season game for the upcoming 2021 season (and reducing the number of preseason games to three in a corresponding move). As explained below, the NFL will use the previous season’s standings to determine each of those matchups.

Based on divisional standings from the previous campaign, each team’s 17th game will be against an opponent from the opposite conference that will be determined on a rotating divisional basis in the same way we currently see one complete AFC division play an entire NFC division. So if the AFC North and NFC West are pitted against one another, the no. 1 teams from the previous season will face off, as well as the no. 2s, 3s, etc.

That formula, which was meant to create more marquee matchups across conferences, will net the following matchups for 2021:

NFC West. vs. AFC North

Seahawks at Steelers, Rams at Ravens, Cardinals at Brown, 49ers at Bengals

NFC North vs. AFC West

Packers at Chiefs, Bears at Raiders, Vikings at Chargers, Lions at Broncos

NFC East vs. AFC East

Washington Football Team at Bills, Giants at Dolphins, Cowboys at Patriots, Eagles at Jets

NFC South vs. AFC South

Saints at Titans, Buccaneers at Colts, Panthers at Texans, Falcons at Jaguars

According to Peter King, the AFC will host the first installment of extra games and the NFC will host the second batch in the 2022 season, with the conferences rotating back and forth into perpetuity. “If that’s how it goes, it’s the fairest way,” he writes. “Competitive equity is the key. You don’t want three NFC East teams playing eight at home and the fourth playing nine at home.”

Kicking off in the second week of September on Thursday the 9th to avoid having the first Sunday of the season fall on ratings-killing Labor Day Weekend, each team’s 2021 campaign will feature 17 games in 18 weeks. Originally scheduled for February 6 of 2022, Super Bowl LVI will be moved to February 13 in order to account for the addition of the 17th game, as the league doesn’t want to add an extra regular-season bye week. Thanks to that move, LVI will be the latest Super Bowl in history.

“This is a monumental moment in NFL history,” Goodell said in a statement. “The CBA with the players and the recently completed media agreements provide the foundation for us to enhance the quality of the NFL experience for our fans. And one of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world.”

And to get the league’s owner an extra week of regular-season ticket sales and TV revenue.

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