With the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement now in place, there’s going to be a lot of dramatic changes coming to the NFL over the next few years and one of the most dramatic ones is going to be the addition of a 17th regular season game. Thanks to the new CBA, the NFL can implement a 17th game as soon as the 2021 season. Of course, before that can happen, someone at the league office is going to have to figure out exactly how a 17-game schedule is going to work. The NFL’s current scheduling formula has been in place since 2002, but that formula only accounts for 16 games, which means something is going to have to change, and it’s going to have to change soon. And that’s where I come in.
I went ahead and figured how the 17-game formula should work, but before we get to that, let’s talk about what won’t work.
Over the past 12 months, there have been multiple suggestions for how the NFL should handle the 17th game. Some people wanted to see a regional rivalry played every year (i.e. Jets vs. Giants), but the problem with that idea is that a team could end up playing another team twice in the same season. For instance, the Jets played the Giants during the 2019 regular season — because the AFC East was playing the NFC East — and if the two had also met in the “rivalry game,” that would mean they would have played each other twice, which wouldn’t make any sense, because you don’t need an AFC team playing an NFC team twice during a single regular season. Also, not every team has a natural rival in their region.
One other possibility thrown out was having each team play an international game, but that definitely won’t be happening. Under the new CBA, the NFL is only allowed to hold up to 10 international games per season, which wouldn’t be enough for every team to play an international game since a 17th game means you’ll be adding a total of 16 games to the schedule.
So what’s the solution?
First, let me say that 17 games is the worst number of games the NFL could have possibly picked. Putting together a perfect scheduling formula is nearly impossible. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, only the peg is on fire and the hole is moving. With that in mind, let’s get to this solution.
The obvious thing to do is turn the 17th game into an AFC vs. NFC showdown, which is what Packers president Mark Murphy . However, Murphy didn’t really offer any details, so that’s what I’m going to do here.
Having an AFC vs. NFC showdown makes sense because it means that teams wouldn’t have an advantage over any other team in their conference. For instance, in the regional rivalry scenario, you could have a situation where the Patriots play eight home games in a year where the Chiefs play nine home games, which would create an unbalanced playing field. You know Bill Belichick would be upset if he loses the top seed in the playoffs by one game in a season where his biggest competitor got to play one more home game than him. By turning this into an AFC vs. NFC thing, there would be no competitive advantage. AFC teams would host the extra game in even years and NFC teams would host in odd years.
As for who each team would be playing in their 17th game, that would be decided based on where you finish in the overall conference standings. Under the current formula, two games per year are based on where you finish in your division. For instance, since the Patriots finished in first place in 2019, they now have to play the other two first place teams in the AFC that weren’t on already their schedule for 2020 (Ravens, Texans).
Under my formula, the NFL would look at the overall conference standings at the end of the season and each team would play the team that finishes in the same spot: First place vs. first place, second place vs. second place, all the way down to 16th place vs. 16th place.
For instance, the Ravens finished with the best overall record in the AFC in 2019, so in 2020, they’d play the NFC team that finished with the best overall record in 2019 (In this case, that’s the 49ers). The AFC’s second-place finisher (Kansas City) would host the NFC’s second-place finisher (Green Bay). If the NFL went this route, it would create a more difficult strength of schedule for better teams, which is something the parity-crazy NFL should love.
Under the current formula, the schedule is inherently the same for all teams whether they’re playing a first-place schedule or a last-place schedule. If you’re wondering how that’s possible, just look at any team’s list of opponents for 2020: Each team will play four games against a first-place team from 2019, four games against a second-place team, four games against a third-place team and four games against a fourth-place team for a total of 16 games.
Under my formula, teams that finish higher in the standings would be more likely to have a more difficult schedule than teams that finish lower in the standings, which would tilt the strength of schedule in favor of weaker teams, because they’ll play a slightly easier schedule.
Under my proposed scheduling formula, here are a few games that would be on the 2020 schedule if the 17th game was being added this year: 49ers at Ravens, Packers at Chiefs, Saints at Patriots, Rams at Steelers and Cowboys at Raiders. Not only would the NFL have those extra games, but they could sell them as a separate package. A network would probably pay billions to get a lineup like the one I just mentioned, and that’s just five games.
My formula would also fix the NFL’s international problem. It’s not always easy for the league to find volunteers to play outside the country, but in this situation, they wouldn’t have to, because with my formula, the four worst teams would have to give up a home game for an international game. If the 17th game was added in 2020, it would create the following games — Redskins-Dolphins, Lions-Bengals, Giants-Chargers, and Panthers-Browns — and those games would all be played at international locations. Since the AFC would be hosting the 17th game in 2020, the conference’s four worst teams in 2019 — Miami, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Cleveland — would all lose a home game for an international one in 2020.
Under my formula, the best teams get punished because they have to play the best teams — like with the 49ers playing the Ravens — but the worst teams also get punished because they lose a home game. Every team would go into each season knowing that if they finished in last place, they’ll be stuck playing an international game the following year.
Although I think my formula would work, there are some small issues. For instance, if the formula were in effect this year, the Bengals and Redskins would be scheduled to play each other since they both finished 16th overall in their conference in 2019. However, those two teams are already scheduled to play each other in 2020, so that wouldn’t work, because we can’t have them playing twice. To fix that, each team would play the next closest team in the conference standings that they’re eligible to play. In this case, the Bengals would play the Lions (who finished 15th in the NFC) and the Redskins would play the Dolphins (who finished 15th in the AFC).
The NFL’s current 16-game formula has been in place since 2002, and the reason it hasn’t been tinkered with is that it’s mostly been perfect, but that formula is going to be tossed aside as soon as 2021 and it will be interesting to see what the NFL comes up with to replace it.
Finally, you can see below who your favorite team would play in 2020 if this 17th game formula were in effect. Each AFC team would play its corresponding seed in the NFC (Remember, this is based on overall standings, not playoff seeding, which is why the Seahawks (11-5) and Vikings (10-6) are both ahead of the Eagles (9-7) even though Philly was seeded higher in the postseason).