NFL Schedule and Playoffs Guide


After the expansion Houston Texans joined the NFL, the league made some switches to their divisional structure in order to create some symmetry. The Texans were the 32nd team in the league, which enable the NFL to have an even number 16 in both conferences, the AFC and the NFC. 16 in each conference further enabled the NFL to retool the divisions so that there are four divisions in each conference, each with four teams. In each conference, the four divisions are the East, North, West and South, and the teams play (usually) in the division which most suits their geographical location. But how do you figure out the schedule and playoff structure in the NFL?
The NFL season consists of 17 weeks, but teams only play 16 games in the regular season. The games themselves are typically played on Sunday afternoons. However, there are also Sunday night games and Monday night games, and occasionally Monday night doubleheaders. On Thanksgiving Day, the NFL always has a few games, which always involve the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys. Additionally, one Thursday game per week has been added into the late season schedule. Saturday games also take place around Christmas game in order to accommodate the holiday.
The extra week is called a bye week, and it can fall at nearly any point in the season (although typically the first several and last several weeks don't have any byes) in order to make the schedule work. While this can be random, the placement of a bye week can actually greatly influence a team's season. If a team's NFL bye week occurs too early in the season, the players don't need the rest as much as they would later. And if a bye week occurs too late for an NFL, it can disrupt the invaluable rhythm and chemistry of a team on a drive to the playoffs.
In order to fully understand the NFL weekly schedule for your team, let's examine the 2008 regular season schedule for the New York Giants. The Giants play in the NFC East, with their rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins. All teams within a division play each other two times every season, allowing for one home and one away game. With three other teams besides your own in any division, every NFL team has six division-rivalry games per season.
That leaves 10 more games up for grab for the regular season schedule. Each year, every division plays two other divisions, one from their own conference and one from the opposite conference. In 2008, the NFC East plays the NFC West and the AFC North. That means that the Giants end up facing the Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals and Rams from the NFC West and the Browns, Bengals, Ravens and Steelers from the AFC North. The full slate of two entire divisions takes up the meat of an NFL team's schedule, with eight games, accounting for half the season. All of the divisions are rotated around, so that every NFL team plays every other NFL team a minimum of once every four years.
Because the divisions are rotated around, the strength of schedule your favorite team faces largely depends on luck of the draw. Well, that is except for the two remaining games on the schedule. With six games in the division, eight games against two other divisions, you have two games left to fill. Those two opponents will be from the remaining divisions in your own conference.
So for the 2008 New York Giants, playing in the NFC East, they play the entire NFC West, which leaves the NFC North and NFC South. From those two remaining divisions in your conference, you play the team from each that finished in the same place as you did. Low and behold, the Giants, 2nd place in the 2007 regular season, play the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers, the 2nd place teams from each of those divisions. This allows for those great Colts-Patriots-Chargers games we get every year, since those teams have been finishing in first place every season.

NFL Postseason Structure


Moving on to the playoffs, 12 teams advance every year to play in the postseason. That's six in each conference, and each division winner automatically gets a spot. That's a total of 8 division winners, four from both the NFC and AFC. The remaining two spots in each conference are called the Wild Card teams. The Wild Card teams are the two non-division winners with the best records from each conference. With only 16 games deciding a team's record, tiebreakers often have to be used.
The first tiebreaker is the head-to-head record between the teams. If the teams didn't play, teams in the same division use their divisional record to break the tie. If the teams are from different divisions, or the tie remains unbroken, the total in-conference record is examined, as well as the records against any common opponents from the regular season.
The first round of the NFL playoffs is called the Wild Card Round and the top two seeds in each conference get a bye week and an automatic entry into the next round of the playoffs. This makes fighting for every win crucial in a long NFL season, as the extra bye week enables you to rest injuries and game plan for twice long. The remaining two division winners in each conference each face one of the Wild Card teams. The winners advanced to the next round, called the Divisional Round.
The opposition is selected by seed, so the highest remaining seed plays the lowest seed. There are now four teams left in each conference for the Divisional Round. After the Divisional Round, with only two teams left in each conference, the Conference Championships take place. Each conference winner, one each from the AFC and NFC, finally square off in the Super Bowl, where the NFL season champion is determined. Whereas to this point all of the games have been played with home field advantage going to the division winner or the team with the better record, the Super Bowl is played on a neutral site. This enables the NFL to plan for the media and fan bonanza years in advance, while also staging the game in a warm climate.

Now that you know, there should be no more complaining about why your team has to face hard teams or why you missed the playoffs even though your record was tied with somebody else. That completes everything you need to know about the NFL regular season schedule, the NFL division and conference structure and the NFL playoffs.