Ever wonder how the NFL determines the inter-divisional games each year? Curious as to when the Patriots next roll in to Seattle? (It’s 2016) The games rotate between divisions, as most fans are aware.  But this rotation has rules and a pattern that can be used to discover a future season’s match-ups.

The exception is games in the same conference that are based on the standings from the year previous to when they are played. However, even these standings-based games are played against pre-determined divisions in a fixed home and away schedule.

This is how the rotational system works:

  • Every year each NFL team plays four games – two home and two away – against another  division within the same conference (intra-conference): NFC vs NFC, AFC vs AFC.
  • Every year each NFL team plays four games – two home and two away – against another division in the other conference (inter-conference): NFC vs AFC.  

These games are scheduled on a rotational basis between divisions. Home and away games alternate each time teams in the divisions meet.

With a noteable exception, the home and away games alternate in alphabetical order for these intra and inter conference match-ups: teams host opponents listed 1st and 2nd alphabetically, and visit opponents listed 3rd and 4th – switching the next time the divisions rotate into play.

  • Opponents of the NFC West or AFC West do not travel to two coastal destinations in the same division . 

This exception accommodates eastern teams – who act like a bunch of whining cry-babies if their away game travel is long enough warrant an in-flight snack.

When playing the NFC West, opponents travel to geographical pairings of either Arizona & San Francisco or St. Louis Seattle (this happens to correspond with the alphabetical order of the NFC West). 

When playing the AFC West,  opponents travel to geographical pairings of either Denver Oakland or Kansas City & San Diego – listed 1st & 3rd, 2nd & 4th alphabetically (these rules still apply when the NFC West and the AFC West play).

Thus, an eastern opponent’s away game travel is split between a central and coastal location each rotation – for example Kansas City and San Diego, rather than two distant coastal locations – like Oakland and San Diego. Home and away games alternate between the two pairs each time the divisions rotate into play. Check out this geographical map of divisions. West coast teams sure rack up frequent flyer points!

 

Nfl_divisional_geographical_alignment_visual

Consider divisions as points on a compass: North, East, South, West. 

  • Division match-ups for Intra-conference games (NFC vs. NFC, AFC vs. AFC) rotate counter-clockwise each year: Using the NFC West as an example, they will play against the NFC East one year, followed by NFC North the next, NFC South the following, and then the NFC East again. 

Compass

Seattle & St. Louis (NFC West) vs. NFC Intra-conference opponents:

East 2011 North 2012 South 2013

@DAL

@NYG

 PHI

WAS

@CHI

@DET

GB

MIN

@ATL

@CAR

NO

TB

Nfl_divisions_alphabetical

  • Division match-ups for Inter-conference games (NFC vs. AFC) rotate clockwise each year: Using the NFC West as an example, they will play the AFC North one year, followed by the AFC East, AFC South, AFC West, and then the AFC North again.

Seattle & St. Louis (NFC West) vs. AFC Inter-conference opponents:

AFC North 2011 AFC East 2012 AFC South 2013 AFC West 2014

BAL

CIN

@CLE

@PIT

NE

NYJ

@BUF

@MIA

HOU

IND

@JAX

@TEN

OAK-DEN

@SD-@KC

  • Every year each NFL team also plays two intra-conference (NFC vs. NFC, AFC vs. AFC) games, one against each of the teams with the same standing in the two divisions that are not already scheduled for intra-conference play that season.

These match-ups are based on divisional standings in the previous season; first place vs. first place , second place vs. second place, third place vs. third place, fourth place vs. fourth place: not by the previous season’s win-loss record. The games are scheduled  – one home and one away – on a rotational basis. The rotational pattern repeats every six years.

NFC West standings-based opponents:

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016

Home: NFC South

 ATL-1st Place 

Away: @NFC North 

 @CHI-1st Place

Home: NFC East

 

Away: @NFC South

Home: NFC East

 

Away: @ NFC North

Home: NFC North

 

Away: @NFC South

Home: NFC South

 

Away: @NFC   East

Home: NFC North

 

Away: @NFC   East

 

Standings


  • Each NFL team plays two games – one home and one away – against the three other teams in its division.
  • Season totals: 4 Intra-conference games (two home, two away); 4 Inter-conference games (two home, two away);  2 Standings-based games (one home, one away); 6 Divisional games (three home, three away): Total 16 games (eight home, eight away).

 

Here is how the Seattle Seahawks’ 2011 schedule works out, excluding the usual divisional opponents, (games are not in order):

Seattle Seahawks 2011

Intra-conference: NFC East         Inter-Conference: AFC North        

By 2010 1st Place Standing:

NFC South @NFC North
  @DAL @NYG PHI WAS   BAL CIN @CLE @PIT   ATL @CHI

Teams within a conference will meet each other at least once every three years, plus any standing based matchups. Thus, teams in different divisions in the same conference may meet several years in a row, depending on their fortunes within their respective divisions. Teams outside the same conference will play each other at least once every four years.

Because divisions switch between home and away games each cycle, a team will only host any given team in the other conference once every eight years. Better buy that inter-conference home game ticket before it’s too late!

My blog entry has used examples from the NFC West, and specifically the Seahawks. If you are interested in exploring the rotation for other divisions, I would recommend “Tealdragon’s” excellent site which has a grid representation of the NFL schedule rotation from 2002-2009 and 2010-2017. It is very useful and a neat bit of work!  

    I also recommend checking out NFL.com’s interactive schedule for 2011. Clicking on any team will bring up their 2011 schedule, with a colour coded guide to which games are divisional, intra-divisional, inter-divisional, or standings-based match-ups.

     Check out Mac’s Football Blog. He has an interesting commentary concerning the disparity of start times for teams travelling west to east. A quote from Mac’s blog: ” Where is the logic in a schedule that has the Arizona Cardinals (6), Oakland Raiders (6), San Francisco 49ers (5), and Seattle Seahawks (5) playing more games at 1pm EST in 2011 than the New England Patriots (4)?” Read the rest of his blog entry for more insight into the issue.

    Right click this link and select “save as” (or your browser’s equivalent) to download the 2010 NFL Record and Fact Book, discovered on this Saints Report Forum post.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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