NFL’s schedule is currently more about rotation than parity
Before the NFL expanded to a neat, tidy 32 teams, the schedule was less about rotation and more about parity. As of 2002, rotation became a much bigger part of the equation.
Prior to the arrival of the Texans, the winner of a five-team division would play eight games against a division rival, four games against teams from one specific division in the other conference, and the first- and second-place teams from the other two divisions in the same conference. Since the league shifted to eight divisions with four teams each, the schedule has been more about rotation.
When the regular-season had only 16 games, half of the slate was the product of rotation. Now, eight of 17 games come from a formula based on the broader goal of ensuring that, once every eight years, every team will host every other team at least once.
It’s a simple approach. Every year, all four teams from one division play all four teams from another division in the same conference, and all four teams from one division in the other conference. It rotates from one division to another, year after year.
Based on the strength or weakness of the various divisions, that rotation can make things harder or easier to secure the No. 1 seed, or to get one of the three wild-card berths.
This year, for example, the teams of the AFC East play all teams of the AFC West and all teams of the NFC East. Eight games, against divisions that generated five total playoff teams in 2022.
That will make it more difficult for whoever doesn’t win the AFC East to secure the fifth, sixth, or seventh seed. And the second- and third-place teams in the AFC East will be competing with second- and third-place teams from divisions that have a more favorable combination of division rotations. The teams from the AFC North -- any of which can make the playoffs -- face the teams of the AFC South, which has one team on the rise, one team on the decline, and two teams struggling to get out of their own way. The AFC North teams also play the teams of the NFC West, two of which are solid and two of which are, let’s face it, not.
So what’s the alternative to the current rotation system? Already, the winner of a division plays the winners of the other two divisions from the same conference, in addition to playing all teams from the third one. Why not take those six games and just play the first- and second-place teams from the other three divisions?
That’s the dividing line. The first- and second-place teams from the four divisions of a given conference play each other, as do the third- and fourth-place teams.
For the Jets, that would remove the Chiefs and Chargers and replace them with the Colts and Steelers. And those two games could be all the difference for a Jets team that, if it doesn’t win the division, might not have enough victories to get a seat at the playoff table.
There’s no perfect solution, obviously. But the current rotation system can put all teams in one given division at a real disadvantage, if eight of their games will be played against teams from two of the strongest divisions. For the Jets, Bills, Dolphins, and Patriots, the rotational approach means that, for this year, they’ll face both Super Bowl teams and three other playoff teams.