NFL’s schedule is currently more about rotation than parity

New York Giants v Tennessee Titans
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Before the NFL expanded to a neat, tidy 32 teams, the schedule was less about rotation and more about parity. As of 2002, rotation became a much bigger part of the equation.

Prior to the arrival of the Texans, the winner of a five-team division would play eight games against a division rival, four games against teams from one specific division in the other conference, and the first- and second-place teams from the other two divisions in the same conference. Since the league shifted to eight divisions with four teams each, the schedule has been more about rotation.

When the regular-season had only 16 games, half of the slate was the product of rotation. Now, eight of 17 games come from a formula based on the broader goal of ensuring that, once every eight years, every team will host every other team at least once.

It’s a simple approach. Every year, all four teams from one division play all four teams from another division in the same conference, and all four teams from one division in the other conference. It rotates from one division to another, year after year.

Based on the strength or weakness of the various divisions, that rotation can make things harder or easier to secure the No. 1 seed, or to get one of the three wild-card berths.

This year, for example, the teams of the AFC East play all teams of the AFC West and all teams of the NFC East. Eight games, against divisions that generated five total playoff teams in 2022.

That will make it more difficult for whoever doesn’t win the AFC East to secure the fifth, sixth, or seventh seed. And the second- and third-place teams in the AFC East will be competing with second- and third-place teams from divisions that have a more favorable combination of division rotations. The teams from the AFC North — any of which can make the playoffs — face the teams of the AFC South, which has one team on the rise, one team on the decline, and two teams struggling to get out of their own way. The AFC North teams also play the teams of the NFC West, two of which are solid and two of which are, let’s face it, not.

So what’s the alternative to the current rotation system? Already, the winner of a division plays the winners of the other two divisions from the same conference, in addition to playing all teams from the third one. Why not take those six games and just play the first- and second-place teams from the other three divisions?

That’s the dividing line. The first- and second-place teams from the four divisions of a given conference play each other, as do the third- and fourth-place teams.

For the Jets, that would remove the Chiefs and Chargers and replace them with the Colts and Steelers. And those two games could be all the difference for a Jets team that, if it doesn’t win the division, might not have enough victories to get a seat at the playoff table.

There’s no perfect solution, obviously. But the current rotation system can put all teams in one given division at a real disadvantage, if eight of their games will be played against teams from two of the strongest divisions. For the Jets, Bills, Dolphins, and Patriots, the rotational approach means that, for this year, they’ll face both Super Bowl teams and three other playoff teams.

6 responses to “NFL’s schedule is currently more about rotation than parity

  1. The rotation system is good for the NFL because it allows fans to see their team play other teams they normally don’t face.
    It may be detrimental to a couple of teams, but its good for the NFL as a whole.

  2. I like the scheduling formula just the way it is. With the current system, every team plays every other team at least once every four years. With the old system, a team could go 15 years or more without going to some other NFL cities. I also think it’s good that each team in a division plays a very similar schedule to the other teams in their division, with only 3 opponents being different. Also, many teams change a lot in quality from year-to-year, so basing so much on the previous years’ record leads to a lot of unintended consequences.

  3. Great, another reason for the Barneys to whine and complain how their team always gets the short end of the stick.
    It’s always something…..

  4. You are assuming that the previous year’s record indicates how well a team will play in the current year. In the NFL, that is often not the case. For example, the consensus going into the 2022 season seemed to be that the AFC West was going to be a powerhouse division. By the end of the 2022 season, that clearly was not the case. It’s fine the way it is. At least the teams within the same division are playing against similar opponents.

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