How do they schedule that 17th game in the NFL?

Steve Brownlee

It’s getting down to the nitty-gritty in the NFL — two more games to go in the regular season when all the playoff teams, but also the playoff positions, are to be determined.

Checking out the standings, which team has the biggest lead in its division? You might not have guessed it, but it’s the Detroit Lions with a four-game cushion on Green Bay and Minnesota in the NFC North.

San Francisco’s lead in the NFC West would’ve also been four games if the 49ers had been able to win on Monday night, though as it is, they’re the only other team to have locked up its division across the entire league.

Despite the Lions’ big lead, the Packers and Vikings are still in the thick of the playoff hunt — though almost certainly one of them won’t be by the time Sunday ends.

All this excitement got me to thinking about something else that has nothing to do with the current playoff races — next year’s schedule.

I’ve known for some time, and been an admirer of, the way the NFL put together its schedule once the conferences were broken down into four divisions and teams played 16 games.

Going way, way, WAY back, I remember when there apparently was no rhyme nor reason to the schedule making — in the ’70s for sure, and probably the ’80s, they just matched teams up.

Oh, you haven’t played the Cardinals in awhile? OK, we’ll have you play them. Yeah, and we’ll make it in St. Louis. Well, that’s how long ago that was.

The formula for 16 games was pretty simple — six of your games were against the three other teams in your division, four more games were against all the teams in another division in your own conference, and another four games were against all the teams in a division in the other conference.

That’s 14 games. Up to this point, every team in your division is playing the exact same set of opponents, except that the Lions were playing the Packers, while the Packers were playing the Lions. That was a real disadvantage for Detroit for a long, long time.

The last two games were where the schedules diverged just a bit. They were against teams from the two divisions in your own conference you weren’t playing already, and you would play the team that finished in the same place as you did last season.

An example of that, which I’m just making up so I don’t have to look up everyone’s schedule and try to remember last year’s standings, would be both Packers and Lions playing each other and the Bears and Vikings twice each, then playing the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants and Commanders (when they were the Redskins) in the NFC East, and say, the Steelers, Browns, Ravens and Bengals in the AFC North.

As the winner of their division last season (I’m going back five or 10 years here), the Packers would also play the NFC West-winning 49ers and NFC South-winning Panthers.

The difference for the Lions was they’d play the NFC East last-place Commanders and the NFC South last-place Falcons instead of the first-place teams the Packers were playing.

All this leads up to what’s going on with the 17th game that was added, I believe, in 2021.

First off, the original 16 games are still determined the same way as they have been. Then the 17th game is always against a team from the opposite conference.

All 16 NFC teams have that as a road game one year, then all have it as a home game the next year. That works out OK because NFC teams are NEVER competing against AFC teams for a playoff berth. The conferences don’t commingle until the Super Bowl.

I originally thought that the NFL took the best team in the NFC and had them play the best from the AFC, then second-best vs. second-best, all the way down to 16th vs. 16th.

Sounds good, eh? But what if the NFC best is already playing AFC best under the original formula? You certainly don’t want the Packers playing the Patriots twice in the same season, do you?

What I just saw in the last few days is that the scheduling of the 17th game is similar to the way those last two games are scheduled from within the conference.

They match up an NFC division with a different AFC division than they’re already playing, and have those first-place teams play each other down to the last-place teams playing each other.

One other thing that is brilliant, but is probably just lucky, is that you don’t get stuck with the same NFC and AFC divisions throughout the rotation.

That’s because there’s four divisions in the opposite conference to rotate through, meaning the Packers play the Patriots or the Steelers, or even the Texans, once every four years, like a presidential election.

But you only have three divisions to rotate around in your own conference, because you don’t schedule in your own division this way. That means the Lions face the Cowboys, 49ers and Buccaneers every three years, and very possibly more often if they match up in the same place for that part of the schedule.

Now onto this week, if you’ve stuck with me this far:


Today, 8:15 p.m.

New York Jets at Cleveland — The last Thursday game of the season as there won’t be one next week.

Though I can see Cleveland as a darkhorse to get to the Super Bowl, this doesn’t exactly make me want to go out and sign up for PrimeTV or AmazonTV or whoever it is that carries these Thursday games.

Usually, the talk is there being no defenses that can stop an awesome offense, but in this case, it might be no offenses that can stop either one of these defenses. Browns, 20-10.


Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

Detroit at Dallas — I’m having a hard time with this one, since these teams have clinched their playoff berths and aren’t likely to improve their current ranking in the NFC playoff hierarchy.

I’m hearing how you can get to the Cowboys’ defense by running right at them, which the Lions can do, but also that their pass rush is awesome, which has really bothered Detroit’s not-so-mobile quarterback Jared Goff.

I’ll probably pick the wrong team again for the wrong reason — last week I picked against the Lions because they were on the road in Minnesota. Now I’m going to say that Dallas is a lot better at home. Cowboys, 34-30.


Sunday, 1 p.m.

Miami at Baltimore — The Dolphins finally beat a team with a winning record, but it was the flawed Cowboys and it was in Miami. Neither true here, and there’s the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. Ravens, 37-24.


New England at Buffalo — Sure, the Pats looked so much better when they scored 20 points in just one single quarter vs. Denver. But Buffalo seems to have a renewed sense of enthusiasm after replacing its offensive coordinator midseason. Bills, 23-16.


Atlanta at Chicago — It’s still audition time for everyone with Chicago — the coaching staff, QB Justin Fields, anyone else who wants to play in the Windy City next year. Bears, 26-20.


Tennessee at Houston — I’m counting on Texans QB C.J. Stroud to return from his concussion symptoms, but just in case, I like Houston’s chances without him better than I like the Titans’ with Stroud playing. On that odd logic, Texans, 24-19.


Las Vegas at Indianapolis — If Raiders owner Mark Davis is smart, he won’t name Antonio Pierce the permanent head coach until the end of the year, that way they can keep playing in their inspired way as a way to lobby for Pierce to keep the job. Raiders, 30-22.


Carolina at Jacksonville — I’m hearing that Jacksonville QB Trevor Lawrence may sit this one out due to shoulder problems, which may be as much of an indictment of the Panthers as anything else. It’s hard not to indict Carolina as the league’s worst team with their 2-13 record. Jaguars, 19-16.


Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants — The Giants had a blip a few weeks ago of showing improvement, then they’ve fallen back in the doldrums. Packers fans, you’ve got to be rooting for New York! Rams, 28-23.


Arizona at Philadelphia — If the Cowboys do win Saturday, the Eagles need this one to keep their division lead. And if Detroit pulls off the win in Dallas, then Philly can clinch the NFC East. Either way, Eagles, 33-24.


New Orleans at Tampa Bay — Can’t see Baker Mayfield having a lot of success in the playoffs, but were not talking that right now — we’re talking about winning the extremely mediocre NFC South. Buccaneers, 27-23.


San Francisco at Washington — Not winning this game likely means San Fran won’t get the No. 1 seed in the NFC. And it would start a losing streak — meaning losing consecutive games — for the second time this season. 49ers, 40-21.


Sunday, 4 p.m.

Pittsburgh at Seattle — You’re also a Steelers fan, Cheeseheads, as Seattle is the other team a game ahead of Green Bay for the wild card. Alas though, Seahawks, 22-19.


Los Angeles Chargers at Denver — Maybe the Broncos will mail it in next week, but I’ve got to believe Denver still thinks it has a chance to get in the playoffs despite what happens earlier on this day. Broncos, 29-24.


Cincinnati at Kansas City — Surely, KC will eventually discover the Midwest’s version of the Fountain of Youth, the Fountain of How To Catch The Football. Now is as good a time as any with the luster off the Jake Browning rose in Cincy. Chiefs, 30-21.


Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

Green Bay at Minnesota — This is pretty much an all-or-nothing game for both teams, the only problem is that the “all” just means that “all” the winner gets is a chance to try to sneak in the back door of the playoffs next week.

But that’s something good to grab onto for a pair of teams whose fans have watched a horror story in recent weeks, not withstanding Green Bay’s last-minute, pulling a win out of the fire against bottom-dwelling Carolina last week. That’s enough for me with the way that injuries have wracked the Vikings. Packers, 27-23.


Last week — 9-7, 56 percent. Season — 149-91, 62 percent.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 552. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.


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