Some teams end up with schedules that appear much easier – or tougher – than other teams. How are the opponents determined for each NFL team?
We’ve all heard the complaints on social media over the years about teams having easy schedules – or even that the NFL “gave” a certain team an easy schedule.
But the reality is that a majority of a team’s schedule is determined even before the previous season begins, as the NFL utilizes the same methodology each season to determine the schedule.
Each team plays 17 games each season, and they know who they face in 14 of those games even before the previous season.
Two games are scheduled against each division rival, with one played at home and one played on the road against each team. This accounts for six games each season.
One game is also scheduled against each team in another division within the conference, with that division rotating each year. It is a three-year rotation, since there are three divisions other than one’s own, which was already accounted for above, inside the conference.
Two games are played at home and two are played on the road, with the location switching when the divisions meet again three years later.
For example, the four teams in the NFC East all played the four teams in the NFC North in 2022. The Washington Commanders hosted the Minnesota Vikings, so in 2025, the Vikings are slated to host the Commanders – like they did in 2019.
That brings us to 10 games.
One game is also scheduled against each team in a division in the opposing conference, with that division rotation each year as well. This rotation is a four-year rotation, since there are four divisions in the other conference.
Two games are played at home and two are played on the road, with the location switching when the divisions meet again four years later.
For example, the four teams in the AFC East all played the four teams in the NFC North in 2022. The Buffalo Bills hosted the Green Bay Packers, so in 2026, the Packers are slated to host the Bills – like they did in 2018.
That brings us to 14 NFL games, and now we can introduce the one and only variable into the equation.
Each NFL team’s other three opponents are determined by the final standings of the previous season. Prior to 2021, this method was used for just two opponents, both being in-conference (but non-division) foes.
For example, the Las Vegas Raiders finished in second place in the AFC West in 2021. Because the four teams in the AFC West already all had the four teams in the AFC South on their 2022 schedule, the Raiders’ two additional in-conference opponents came from the AFC East and the AFC North.
For the Raiders, those two teams were the teams who finished in second place in their respective divisions, since that is where the Raiders finished in theirs. Those teams were the New England Patriots (AFC East) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC North). One game was played at home and the other was played on the road.
That brings us to 16 NFL games, and that same variable remains in play.
Beginning in 2021, an extra non-conference game was added using the same method (previous year’s division finish), but for only one non-conference division.
When the method was introduced in 2021, it was determined that the divisions selected would be whichever divisions were utilized for the traditional non-conference method two years prior.
For example, in 2020, the four teams in the AFC West all played the four teams in the NFC South. So in 2022, the extra 17th game for each AFC West team came against an NFC South team.
The Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC West in 2021, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the NFC South in 2021, so the two teams faced off in 2022.
The AFC teams were the hosts of these extra games in 2021, while the NFC teams were the hosts in 2022 (so the Chiefs traveled to Tampa). The AFC teams are set to be the hosts next year.
So with the 2022 regular season in the books and division standings final, anybody can figure out which teams will be on each team’s schedule in 2023.