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Regular season (NFL)

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Regular season (NFL)

The National Football League regular season begins the weekend after Labor Day and ends in December or early January. It consists of 256 games, where each team plays 16 games during a 17-week period. Traditionally, the majority of each week's games are played on Sunday afternoon, with weekly games on Sunday night and Monday night, and occasional games on Thursday night or Saturday.

Game times

Main article: NFL on television

Since 1990, the majority of NFL regular-season games are played on Sundays at 1 pm, or around 4:00 to 4:25pm ET (see below), with the late afternoon (ET) games usually reserved either for matches hosted in the Pacific Time Zone or Mountain Time Zone, or for one or more marquee contests. The current NFL television contract awards the American broadcast of these games to FOX or CBS, with FOX showing games where the visiting team is from the NFC and CBS showing games where the visiting team is from the AFC. Each of these Sunday afternoon games is televised on a regional basis to a few or several areas around the country.

Games that currently kickoff at 4:25pm are when a game is on CBS or FOX and one of those networks have a doubleheader day. The start time of these late afternoon doubleheader games were moved later to 4:25pm, beginning with the 2012 season, as more 1pm games tended to end late.[1] The network (either CBS or FOX) only airing a singleheader still televises the late afternoon game to selected areas at 4:00pm.

The schedule allows for 4 other regular time slots, in which these games are broadcast nationally across the country:

  1. One Sunday night game, which has been regularly scheduled since 1987, and has aired on NBC since 2006.
  2. One Monday Night Football game, which has been regularly scheduled since 1970, and has been appearing on ESPN since 2006. Also since 2006, two games have been on the first Monday of the season. The practice of holding a Monday night game during the last week of the season ended after the 2002 season due to, among other reasons, low ratings, and a competitive imbalance involved for potential playoff teams who would have one less day of rest before the postseason.
  3. On Thursday nights since 2006, one game has been played and aired on the NFL Network on the weeks including and after Thanksgiving Day. In addition, during the day on Thanksgiving, the NFL has played Thanksgiving Classic games since 1920; by tradition the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions always host these afternoon games. Beginning with the 2012 season, the NFL has played games on Thursday nights for the whole season.
  4. Should there be a need for it, an occasional Friday or Saturday night game, only in late December, due to the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961. December Saturday games (night and, before 2006, day as well) were a regular part of the schedule through 2011.

Since the 2006 season, the NFL has used a "flexible scheduling" system for the last seven weeks of the regular season when there is a Sunday night game. This is because by week 11, there are a number of teams that have been eliminated or nearly eliminated from playoff contention. Flex-scheduling ensures that all Sunday night games have playoff significance.


Number of regular season games per team
1935–1936 12 games
1937–1942, 1946 11 games (12 weeks)
1943–1945 10 games (12 weeks)
1947–1960 12 games (variable weeks)
1961–1977 14 games
1978–1981, 1983–1986, 1988–1989 16 games
1982 9 games (17 weeks, strike)
1987 15 games (16 weeks, strike)
1990–92, 1994–2000, 2002–present 16 games (17 weeks)
1993 16 games (18 weeks)
2001 16 games (18 weeks, September 11 attacks)

In its early years after 1920, the NFL did not have a set schedule, and teams played as few as eight and as many as sixteen games, many against independent professional, college or amateur teams. From 1926 through 1946, they played from eleven to fifteen games per season, depending on the number of teams in the league. From 1947 through 1960, each NFL team played 12 games per season. In 1960, the American Football League began play and introduced a balanced schedule of 14 games per team over a fifteen week season, in which each of the eight teams played each of the other teams twice, with one bye week. Competition from the new league caused the NFL to expand and follow suit with a fourteen-game schedule in 1961. From 1961 through 1977, the NFL schedule consisted of fourteen regular season games played over fourteen weeks. Opening weekend typically was the weekend after Labor Day, or even two weekends after Labor Day. Teams played six, or even seven exhibition games. In 1978, the league changed the schedule to include sixteen regular season games and four exhibition games. From 1978-1989, the sixteen games were played over sixteen weeks.

In 1990, the NFL introduced a bye week to the schedule. Each team played sixteen regular season games over seventeen (eighteen in 1993 and 2001) weeks. During the season, on a rotating basis, each team would have the weekend off. As a result, opening weekend was moved up to Labor Day weekend. (The league had an odd number of teams (31) from 1999 to 2001. During that period, at least one team had to be given a bye on any given week.)

Since the 2002 season, the league has scheduled a nationally televised regular season kickoff game on the Thursday night after Labor Day, prior to the first Sunday of NFL games to kick off the season. The first one, featuring the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants, was held on September 5, 2002 largely to celebrate New York City's resilience in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.[2] Since 2004, the NFL has indicated that the opening game will normally be hosted by the defending Super Bowl champions as the official start of their title defense. Thus, under this scheduling system, the earliest the regular season could begin is September 4, as it was in the 2008 season, due to the 1st falling on a Monday, while the latest possible is September 10, as it was in the 2009 season, due to the 1st falling on a Tuesday.


Current formula

AFC East AFC North AFC South AFC West
1st Place Patriots Ravens Texans Broncos
2nd Place Dolphins Bengals Colts Chargers
3rd Place Jets Steelers Titans Raiders
4th Place Bills Browns Jaguars Chiefs
NFC East NFC North NFC South NFC West
1st Place Redskins Packers Falcons 49ers
2nd Place Giants Vikings Panthers Seahawks
3rd Place Cowboys Bears Saints Rams
4th Place Eagles Lions Buccaneers Cardinals
This chart of the 2012 season standings displays an application of the NFL scheduling formula. The Packers in 2012 (in green) finished in first place in the NFC North. Thus, in 2013, the Packers will play two games against each of its division rivals (marked in blue), one game against each team in the NFC East and AFC North (marked in yellow), and one game against each of the two other first-place finishers in the NFC that the Packers were not already predetermined to play (also marked in yellow).

Currently, each team's 16-game regular season schedule is set using a pre-determined formula:[3]

  • Each team plays each of the other three teams in its division twice: once at home, and once on the road (six games).
  • Each team plays the four teams from another division within its own conference once on a rotating three-year cycle: two at home, and two on the road (four games).
  • Each team plays the four teams from a division in the other conference once on a rotating four-year cycle: two at home, and two on the road (four games).
  • Each team plays once against the other teams in its conference that finished in the same place in their own divisions as themselves in the previous season, not counting the division they were already scheduled to play: one at home, one on the road (two games).

This schedule was designed so all teams are guaranteed to play every other team in their own conference at least once every three years, and to play every team in the other conference exactly once every four years. Additionally, the schedule guarantees that each team will both host and visit every other team within its conference at least once every six years, and will host and visit every team in the other conference exactly once every eight years. Finally, it guarantees a similar schedule for every team in a division each season, as all four teams will play fourteen out of their sixteen games against common opponents or each other.

Although this scheduling formula determines each of the thirty-two teams' respective opponents, the league usually does not release the final regular schedule with specific dates and times until the spring; the NFL needs several months to coordinate the entire season schedule so that, among other reasons, games are worked around various scheduling conflicts, and that it helps maximize TV ratings.[4][5]

"West Coast" modification

Under the original 2002 formula, half of the teams scheduled to play all the AFC West clubs had to travel to both Oakland and San Diego in the same season, while half of the clubs playing the NFC West had to make their way to both San Francisco and Seattle. In years in which a division was scheduled to play both AFC and NFC West clubs, two clubs (such as the New England Patriots and New York Jets in 2008) each had to make cross-country trips to all four of the aforementioned west coast teams.

As a result, after all of the teams had cycled through playing against each other both home and away by the end of the 2009 season, the NFL tweaked the pairings to relieve teams from having to travel to the west coast more than twice in a season. Under the modifications implemented in 2010, clubs now only have to travel to play one team based on the west coast (either Oakland or San Diego) in years they play the teams in the AFC West, and only one such team (either San Francisco or Seattle) in years they play the NFC West.[6]

Past formulas

Prior to 2002 (when the league expanded to 32 teams) the league used similar scheduling rubrics, though they were adjusted for the number of teams and divisions. From 1970 to 1994, and again from 1999 to 2001, the league did not have equal numbers of teams in every division, which allowed for unbalanced schedules. The only time since the merger that the league has been completely "balanced" has been from 1995 to 1998 (with 6 divisions of 5 teams each) and since 2002 (with 8 divisions of 4 teams each). Additionally, prior to 2002, teams always played four of the teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating basis (albeit with the standings playing a role in who would play who), but not their own; meaning that while an AFC team would be more likely to play each NFC team on a regular basis, they could go far longer without playing every team in their own conference. For example, between 1970 (when the leagues merged) and 2002 (when the current schedule was introduced) the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins played only 6 times; including a stretch (1976–1997) where they met only once in 22 seasons.[7] Under the current system, they are guaranteed to meet at least every third year. It is still possible, albeit on a reduced scale, for intraconference match-ups to be seen over several consecutive years, which has played a role in the development of the Colts–Patriots rivalry: they had met every year between 2003 and 2012 in the regular season, due to the teams finishing in the same position in their divisions, while the Colts have only seen their other former AFC East rivals in years they would play the entire division.

AFC East AFC Central AFC West
1st Place Bills Bengals Raiders
2nd Place Dolphins Oilers Chiefs
3rd Place Colts Steelers Seahawks
4th Place Jets Browns Chargers
5th Place Patriots   Broncos
NFC East NFC Central NFC West
1st Place Giants Bears 49ers
2nd Place Eagles Buccaneers Saints
3rd Place Redskins Lions Rams
4th Place Cowboys Packers Falcons
5th Place Cardinals Vikings  
This chart displays an example of the special "fifth-place" schedule that was in use when the league only consisted of 28 teams between 1976 and 1994. At the end of the 1990 season, the Patriots (in green) finished in fifth place in the AFC East. Thus the Patriots in 1991 had to play all the other AFC East teams (in blue) twice; the Broncos, who finished fifth in the AFC West, (in orange) twice; the clubs in the four-team AFC Central division; and the Cardinals and the Vikings, who also finished in fifth place in their respective NFC divisions during that previous season.

Also during the years that the league did not have equal numbers of teams in every division, there was a special so-called "last place" or "fifth-place" schedule for teams who finished in last place in a five-team division. In addition to their division games, a team who finished in last place in the previous season would also primarily play the other teams who finished in last place, plus all the clubs in a four-team division. For example, the 1990 New England Patriots finished in last place in the AFC East. Their 1991 schedule then consisted of all their division games against AFC East opponents; games against teams in the four-team AFC Central; and games against the teams who also finished in fifth place in 1990: Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, and Arizona Cardinals.

There have been proposals to expand the regular season schedule to 17 or 18 games per team. Current Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he favors expanding it to 18 games.[8] However, a longer regular season proposal was defeated in the 2011 labor negotiations between the owners and the players association.[9][10] One of the proposals for the 17th and 18th games is to have every team play at least one game abroad every year.[11] Another idea being put forth by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair is to move the traditional regional rivalries that are currently played in the preseason (such as the Governor's Cups) into a permanent annual part of each NFL team's schedule.[12] The NFL Players' Association opposes extending the season, largely because of injury concerns, and extending the season would require that such an extension be included in the next collective bargaining agreement. The collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 maintained the sixteen game regular season schedule.

Scheduling rotation

Announced division opponents for the 2013 season:

Teams Opponents
Year Division Intraconf. Interconf.
2013 AFC East AFC North NFC South
AFC North AFC East NFC North
AFC South AFC West NFC West
AFC West AFC South NFC East
NFC East NFC North AFC West
NFC North NFC East AFC North
NFC South NFC West AFC East
NFC West NFC South AFC South

Regular season games played outside of the U.S.

To date, several NFL regular season games have been played outside of the U.S. The first was the 2005 game between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers, which was played in Mexico City.

In October 2006, NFL club owners approved a plan to stage up to two international regular season games per season beginning in 2007 and continuing through at least 2011.[13] The New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins played at Wembley Stadium in London on October 28, 2007 for the first of these games.[14][15] A second game in London took place on Sunday 26 October 2008, when the San Diego Chargers took on the nominal 'home team' New Orleans Saints, also at Wembley.[16] The New England Patriots were the designated visitors when they beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 35-7 on October 25, 2009.[17][18]

The long term plan was originally to have two international games played every year, on a 16-year rotating schedule that would guarantee that each team would get to play twice over that span: once as the home team and once as the away team. This was abandoned when the St. Louis Rams, who are co-owned with Arsenal, a prominent soccer team in London, signed a three-year agreement to be the home team in the International Series games in London. This plan has since been re-established after the Rams announced that they would not be returning to England in 2013, their 2012 game on the 28th October being their final visit. Since, the NFL has announced that the Jacksonville Jaguars will play one home game a season at Wembley, up to and including 2016. Their first game, versus the San Francisco 49ers, will take place in London on the 27th October 2013. A second game has also been announced during the same season in London, the Minnesota Vikings will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on the 29th September, the same year.

The Buffalo Bills played a regular season games from 2008 through 2012 in Toronto, Ontario as part of the Bills Toronto Series along with 3 originally scheduled preseason games in the even years (2012 preseason game was relocated to Buffalo on tornotos request). The Bills extended this agreement for 5 more years through 2017. The Bills first of eight games in Toronto was a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on August 14, 2008.[19] The Dolphins beat the Bills 16-3 in the first regular season game of the series, on December 7, 2008. The New York Jets played the Bills on Thursday, December 3, 2009.

Disruptions of the schedule

From the beginnings of the NFL, most teams shared stadiums with Major League Baseball teams, with the MLB teams holding leases giving them priority. The NFL was required to schedule around September baseball games. In October this frequently resulted in NFL teams having to reschedule on short notice if the MLB team in their city made the playoffs. Sometimes the NFL game could be moved to Saturday or Monday. The NFL would often schedule October division games so that teams would be able to swap home game dates if it appeared that the MLB playoff schedule would make a stadium unavailable to the NFL. Probably the most extreme case was in 1973 when the New York Jets played at Shea Stadium and were forced to play their first six games on the road because the Mets were in the World Series. As more MLB teams started to move into baseball-only stadiums by the 1990s and 2000s, this became less of a problem. Currently, only the Oakland Raiders share the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum with the Oakland Athletics. (The Buffalo Bills also host one game a year at the Rogers Centre, which is the home of the Toronto Blue Jays, but this is only an issue in the preseason, since all such regular season games to date have been scheduled after the end of the MLB regular season, and the Blue Jays have not made the MLB playoffs since winning the 1993 World Series.)

The American Football League, the precursor to today's American Football Conference, postponed Week 12 of the 1963 season because of the assassination of President Kennedy, which took place on Friday, November 22. The AFL's games were made up by adding a 15th week to a 14-week schedule. The older and more established National Football League went ahead and played as scheduled on Sunday, November 24, 1963.

In 2001, Week 2 of the season was canceled because of the September 11 attacks. Week 2's games were made up by adding an 18th week to what was originally a 17-week schedule. The games were played on Sunday, January 6 and Monday, January 7, 2002. The post-season schedule was moved back a week, including Super Bowl XXXVI due to the lack of a bye week before the game.

Several games have been postponed or relocated because of natural disasters. A few days before the start of the 2005 NFL Season, the Louisiana Superdome was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and much of the city of New Orleans was destroyed. The New Orleans Saints' eight scheduled home games were moved to other locations, including Giants Stadium, the Alamodome in San Antonio, and Louisiana State University. On September 14, 2008, the Houston Texans were scheduled to host the Baltimore Ravens. The game was postponed until November 9 because of Hurricane Ike (which caused some damage to Reliant Stadium) and several other changes had to be made to the schedule. The roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome collapsed on December 12, 2010 after a severe heavy snowstorm, resulting in the stadium being unusable for the remainder of the season. The last two of the Minnesota Vikings' home games had to be moved: one to Ford Field in Detroit (which also led to the game being postponed the following Monday night) and another to TCF Bank Stadium, the University of Minnesota's college football stadium.

The 1982 and 1987 seasons were both shortened by labor disputes. The 1982 strike lasted 57 days. Weeks 3 through 10 were canceled, but an additional week was added to make a 9-game schedule. The 1982 playoff matchups were determined by conference standings only. The 1987 strike and subsequent lockout lasted 24 days but only one week of the schedule was lost. Weeks 4 through 6 were played with replacement players. The rest of the season was played as originally scheduled, for a total of 15 games per team.

The Miami Dolphins have been involved in a number of games that got moved to a different time and date. A few of those games would include 2004 against Tennessee (Hurricane Ivan) and Pittsburgh (Hurricane Jeanne), 2005 against Kansas City (Hurricane Wilma), and others.[20][21][22] In December 2010, a Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles games originally scheduled for Sunday, December 26, was postponed to Tuesday, December 28, because of a strong nor'easter; the game had originally been scheduled for Sunday afternoon, a time at which it could have been successfully completed without interference from the weather, but it was flexed by NBC to Sunday night.

In the event that the 2011 NFL season had been disrupted because of a then-ongoing labor dispute, the NFL had arranged its schedule to facilitate easier cancellations and postponements. In addition to an emergency scenario of an eight-game schedule beginning in late November, the NFL also arranged its full-length schedule such that weeks 2 and 4 have no division games, week 17 has all division games, and all week 3 matchups can be moved into each team's respective bye week. The league also had a contingency plan to postpone Super Bowl XLVI one week, which (assuming a full playoff schedule) would allow a 13-game schedule with five division games for each team to be played beginning as late as October 16.


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