2021 NFL Schedule
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Have you ever wondered why the NFL Schedule release is such a big deal? Or how do primetime games get selected? How often can a team play in primetime? And what’s the deal with flex scheduling? Check out the current NFL schedule and learn everything fans of NFL betting need to know about the NFL's TV schedule and season layout.
NFL TV Schedule
NFL games are available to the viewing public in several ways. Sunday afternoon games are always available on either CBS or FOX and dictated by local market. If the Baltimore Ravens are playing, that game will be aired in the Baltimore market in that time slot rather than a game involving the Houston Texans or Jacksonville Jaguars.
Traditionally, CBS carries more AFC games while FOX carries more of the NFC matchups. However, that has changed some in recent years due to flex scheduling (more on that in a bit). These afternoon games are all available on NFL Sunday Ticket or via your local listings.
Sunday Night Football is aired on NBC and is considered the top matchup of the week. The game always kicks off at 8:20 p.m. ET.
Monday Night Football airs on ESPN. This is another primetime slot as no other games are being played at the same time.
Thursday Night Football is broadcast by FOX and is often simulcast on Amazon or NFL Network. Be sure to check your local listings and cable provider to see how you can watch Thursday Night Football. Typically, the Thursday night game features a less-than-stellar matchup, but not always.
During the last few weeks of the NFL season, there are often Saturday NFL games. However, the NFL isn't allowed to compete against college football, so if and when these games are played depends on the college football schedule.
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How Are NFL Teams Selected For Primetime Games?
Primetime games are considered games that are played when they are the only games on during that timeslot. Typically, primetime games occur at night, but that's not always the case as there have been primetime games on during the late afternoon in special circumstances.
For primetime games, the NFL tries to pick the best matchups of the week to feature. NBC gets the first choice of any of the games scheduled for a week and that game is always played on Sunday Night Football. The NFL can only schedule a team to be in primetime five times during the year, but flex scheduling allows the league to put a premiere NFL team such as the Kansas City Chiefs or Green Bay Packers on one more time for a total of six primetime games.
In 2006, the NFL introduced flex scheduling to ensure that the best possible matchups are being given to the primetime slots. After all, there are always surprise teams or great matchups that aren’t obvious when the regular-season schedule is released.
Flex scheduling allows the league to move a game from CBS or FOX to the primetime slot on Sunday Night Football on NBC. Starting in Week 11 of the season, the league can move any Sunday afternoon game to the Sunday Night Football slot. From Week 5 to Week 10, they may utilize the flex scheduling just twice.
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The reason that flex scheduling matters to the NFL so much is that it helps ensure that there are important and meaningful games being played in that primetime slot as the NFL playoffs draw near. Usually, these games feature divisional opponents, great quarterback matchups or games with significant NFL playoffs implications. This means the games are typically competitive and keeps the viewers interested to the end of the game (making advertisers happy as well).
For instance, before the season began, the NFL might have scheduled the Dallas Cowboys against the New York Giants on Sunday night in Week 15. But due to injuries, the Cowboys game is meaningless. However, the Cleveland Browns emerged as a surprise team and their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that week could determine the division. Browns-Steelers would likely get flexed into the Sunday night slot.
The NFL has recently introduced flex scheduling with the afternoon games, as well. This allows the league to move a game from the 1 p.m. ET slot to the 4:05 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. Usually, more games are being played during the 1 p.m. time slot, and this allows the league to put "better" games and matchups later in the day with less competition.
Why the NFL Schedule Matters?
The NFL schedule matters for a variety of reasons. It tells us which teams the league expects to be good as they will receive more primetime games than a non-playoff caliber team. It also shows important facts such as bye weeks, which teams will be playing on short weeks (Sunday-Thursday or Monday-Sunday) and which teams will be forced to travel the most. All of that info is critical when considering your wagers.
As we have seen over the last decade, West Coast teams that travel East Coast and play in an early timeslot tend to struggle. While the NFL tries to avoid having too many of these types of games, avoiding them entirely is nearly impossible.
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How the NFL Creates Its Schedule
It takes the NFL a very long time to put together a 256-game regular-season schedule. Not only do they need to map out the games to ensure fairness and high-quality matchups in primetime, but they also have to avoid scheduling conflicts with stadiums.
Every NFL team has eight home and eight road games. Teams play the other three teams in its own division twice (home and away) and a total of 12 games within its conference and four against teams in the other conference. Here’s how it breaks down:
- 6 games within your division (home and away against each team)
- 6 games outside your division but within your conference (4 against one division; 2 against the teams in the other divisions that finished with the same divisional ranking the previous season; 3 home, 3 away in total); division rotates every season
- 4 games against a division in the other conference (2 home, 2 away); division rotates every season
Let’s use the New Orleans Saints, who play in the NFC South, as an example to illustrate this. The Saints will play home and away against the other NFC South teams (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons) every season.
Let’s say they draw the NFC North this season. They will play the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. If the Saints finished in second in the NFC South last season, they would then face the teams that finished second in the NFC East and NFC West this season. That completes their NFC portion of scheduling, and before facing the NFC North in its entirety again, the Saints would cycle through the NFC East and NFC West.
The Saints would rotate through each AFC division for their final four games. So, if they faced the AFC West this season, they would not see those teams again for the next three seasons.
Frequently, stadiums already have events booked on certain days and some teams and franchises share venues. The NFL has to ensure there are no conflicts. The league goes through several thousand schedule possibilities to find the best and fairest schedule for all 32 teams. The NFL has a dedicated team that works on the schedule year-round as it works with broadcast teams, cities and other outside entities to accomplish this.
NFL Schedule FAQs
When is the NFL schedule released every year?
The date of the NFL schedule release varies by year, but it usually occurs after the NFL Draft. The NFL says they must have a schedule released by spring, but that always is a little vague. But typically, the NFL likes to announce the schedule sometime in April or May.
How many games does each NFL team play?
Each NFL team plays 16 games during the regular season, eight at home and eight on the road. In some cases, a team may be "forced" to give up a home game to play in an international game, such as in London or Mexico.
How many divisional games does each NFL team play?
Each NFL team plays all three of its divisional opponents twice. That means all teams play a combined six divisional games, three at home and three at their opponent's stadium.
How many conference games does each NFL team play?
Each NFL team plays 12 conference games and four games against the opposing conference.
How long does the NFL regular season last?
The NFL season is 17 weeks long, with each team playing 16 games and having one bye week. The season usually starts the Thursday after Labor Day in September and runs through the first week in January. The season can be shifted or moved a few weeks, but the NFL likes to have the playoffs start in early January.