Each spring, it takes thousands of cloud-based computers to produce thousands of possible schedules — a process that sets the stage for NFL executives to begin the arduous task of picking the best possible one.
The NFL schedule makers — Senior Vice President of Broadcasting Howard Katz, Senior Director of Broadcasting Blake Jones, Director of Broadcasting Charlotte Carey, Vice President of Broadcasting Michael North, Vice President of Broadcasting Onnie Bose, and Broadcasting Manager Nick Cooney — must consider the fans, the league's broadcast partners and many other factors when building the 272-game schedule that spans the 18 weeks of the NFL season and showcases the league's best matchups and talent.
The schedule makers will 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.
The schedulers are also constrained by internal factors. A formula determines each team's opponents every year, and a rotating schedule ensures that every team plays each of the other 31 at least once in a four-year period.
THE ANATOMY OF THE NFL SCHEDULE
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.
Every team will play 17 regular-season games with one bye week. Teams will alternate seasons where they host nine regular-season games and one preseason game, or eight regular-season games and two preseason games. The NFC will have nine regular season home games in the 2022 season.
Here's a breakdown of how each NFL team's opponents are set:
- Six games against divisional opponents — two games per team, one at home and one on the road.
- Four games against teams from a division within its conference — two games at home and two on the road.
- Four games against teams from a division in the other conference— two games at home and two on the road.
- Two games against teams from the two remaining divisions in its own conference — one game at home and one on the road. Matchups are based on division ranking from the previous season.
- The 17th game is an additional game against a non-conference opponent from a division that the team is not scheduled to play. Matchups are based on division ranking from the previous season.
ONCE EVERY TEAM'S OPPONENTS ARE SET, THE SCHEDULE MAKERS BEGIN THE PROCESS OF DETERMINING WHEN EVERY GAME WILL BE PLAYED.
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. The league typically schedules the Super Bowl champion at home for the Thursday night game that kicks off the new season.
The league will also schedule games on the Saturdays of Weeks 15 and 18. In Week 15, three of the five designated matchups will be played on Saturday with the remainder being played on Sunday. Specific dates and start times for the designated Week 15 matchups will be determined and announced later during the season.
In 2007, the NFL added a new twist to the scheduling process: the NFL International Series.
Each team is guaranteed to play internationally at least once every eight years. In addition to current existing games in Mexico and the United Kingdom, the league will play games in Germany. Clubs can still volunteer to play home games abroad if they choose, just as they have been able to in previous seasons.
Scheduling these matchups presents a challenge for the schedule makers, which is why setting the International Series games is a particular focus early in the process.
Schedule makers then look at a three-week window around the international games to try to find ways to make long travel less of a burden on the teams. This includes where a team plays in the week prior to an international game and whether or not they have a bye week following the game.
The 2023 season will feature games played in London, Munich and Frankfurt. There will not be an international game in Mexico due to renovations taking place in Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
View photos of the New York Giants' official 2023 schedule.
In 2006, the NFL introduced a "flexible scheduling" procedure for NBC's "Sunday Night Football." Flex scheduling ensures that the Sunday night game will feature a quality primetime matchup.
During the 2022 season, flexible scheduling for Sunday night may be used twice between Weeks 5–10, Weeks 11–15 and Week 17. In flex scheduling weeks, the games listed for the Sunday night window are tentative and subject to change. Only Sunday afternoon games are eligible to move to Sunday night, in which the tentatively scheduled Sunday night game would move to a Sunday afternoon.
Sunday afternoon games may also be moved between the 1 p.m. ET, 4:05 p.m. ET, or 4:25 p.m. ET time slots.
In 2014, the league introduced "cross-flexing," which allows a select number of games annually that would have typically aired on Fox or CBS to be aired on the other Sunday afternoon network. That means, for example, that an all-AFC matchup could air on Fox and an all-NFC game could appear on CBS. An equal number of games must be cross-flexed: if CBS airs three games originally slated for Fox, then Fox would have to get three games that would have originally aired on CBS.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD SCHEDULE?
Each team has one bye week between Weeks 6 and 14. 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 team coming off its bye.
The schedule makers also consider where a team's bye week fell in past seasons. A team with an early bye week one year will receive consideration for a later bye week the next season.
Even after all the factors have been weighed and the schedule is produced, the league occasionally has to make adjustments on short notice.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma caused the league to postpone the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 1 game in Miami against the Dolphins in the interest of public safety. While not ideal, the teams both had a Week 11 bye, so the game was played that week and they had an unexpected Week 1 bye.
The league tries to limit the number of consecutive road games any team plays to two games, with emphasis at the beginning and end of the season. Sometimes, however, the schedule makers cannot avoid placing a team on the road for three straight weeks.
Schedule makers also work to avoid putting teams in a position where they cross the country too often over a short period of time or endure inordinate travel that may put the players at a competitive disadvantage compared with the club they are 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.
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.
View photos of every move made by the Giants during the 2023 offseason.