With the NFL currently moving toward the potential addition of a 17th regular-season game, a question inevitably will arise for the league (if it hasn’t already) regarding the manner in which the league would identify one extra opponent for every team. A loyal PFT Live viewer from the UK has posed the question directly to us via email, and we’ve decided to take a crack at solving the looming problem.
Based on the current scheduling formula, there’s really only one fair way to do it.
The league crafted a perfect formula in 2002, when the Texans joined the league and the number of teams hit an even number of 32. Two conferences, four divisions each, four teams each. Each team plays: (1) the other three teams in its division twice; (2) all four teams from one of the other divisions in its conference, on a three-year rotating basis; (3) all four teams from one of the divisions in the other conference, on a four-year rotating basis; and (4) the teams from the other two divisions in its own conference that finished in the same position during the prior year.
This results in only two games per year being weighted to reflect the outcome of the prior season. In the AFC East, for example, the Patriots (first place in the AFC East last year) and the Jets (fourth place) play the same slate of games with the exception of two: the Patriots play the AFC South and AFC West champions from 2018, and the Jets play the last-place team from those two divisions.
The 17th game provides another opportunity to inject more parity into the schedule. With every team already playing all four teams from one division in the other conference, the 17th game would involve a team from one of the other three divisions in the other conference, based on where the teams finished in those divisions in the prior year.
For example, the four AFC East teams play the four NFC East teams this year. In a 17th game, the Patriots would play a team like the Rams (first place in the NFC West) and the Jets would play the Cardinals (fourth place).
Next year, when the four teams of the AFC East play the four teams of the NFC West, the 17th game would come from the NFC North. The next year, when the four AFC East teams play the four NFC South teams, the 17th game would come from the NFC East.
And with a 17-game schedule allowing teams to play eight true home games, eight true road games, and one neutral-site game, that 17th game that breaks from the current formula also should be the neutral-site game.
There’s another important business reason to make the 17th game an extra interconference matchup: With the first-place team in each division playing not one but two first-place teams from the other conference each year, the chances of a Super Bowl rematch in any given year would increase significantly.
In some years, the Super Bowl rematch would be played at a neutral site. Like Patriots-Rams could have been this year, if the NFL already had a 17-game season with the formula we’ve proposed. And that would be a great way to generate interest and excitement in other countries.