During the 2021 offseason, the NFL made a major change to its schedule. The league expanded it to 17 total games.
The schedule expansion was the NFL’s first since 1978, when the league expanded from a 14-game schedule to a 16-game schedule. The NFL used the 16-game slate for 43 years.
But now, the league has added to its schedule once again and will dive head-first into the new 17-game format in 2022.
“This is a monumental moment in NFL history,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said of the schedule expansion in a statement. “The CBA with the players and the recently completed media agreements provide the foundation for us to enhance the quality of the NFL experience for our fans. And one of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world.”
Here is everything you need to know about the schedule expansion and how it will impact the NFL’s 2021 season.
Why did the NFL expand to a 17-game schedule?
It’s all about the money. NFL owners think they can make more money — and “grow the game,” as Goodell mentioned in his statement — with a 17-game regular season and three-game preseason than they can with the previous 16-game regular season and four-game preseason.
The NFL had the option to expand the schedule to 17 games built into the CBA; they just had to sign one new media contract before earning the ability to exercise it. The league managed that and exercised its expansion clause ahead of the 2022 season.
The expansion of the season was always inevitable once the NFLPA and owners agreed to it in the CBA. Beyond that, the timing of this — after the COVID pandemic drove fans out of stadiums and caused many owners to lose money on lacking gate receipts and concession sales — makes the decision sensible.
How will the NFL’s 17-game schedule work?
The expansion to a 17-game schedule caused a big change in the NFL’s preseason schedule. Instead of each team playing four preseason games, every team will now play three (save for the Hall of Fame Game participants who will participate in a fourth preseason game).
That said, while the preseason is a bit shorter, it will still be a fruitful opportunity for NFL coaches to evaluate their roster depth. In recent seasons, we’ve seen coaches move away from using their starters at all during the preseason. In 2021, new Chargers coach Brandon Staley is planning on sitting quarterback Justin Herbert, among others, to ensure they stay healthy.
The decreased roles for starters will provide ample opportunities for NFL coaches to evaluate the depth players on their rosters. As such, the shortening of the preseason won’t matter too much for teams and could be beneficial as teams look to avoid preseason injuries to their most consequential players.
Obviously, the regular season is now one week longer than it was previously. The start of the season remains unmoved, so that means the playoffs will be pushed back a week to make room for the extra game. As a result, the Super Bowl will take place on Feb. 13, 2022 instead of Feb. 6, 2022 this season.
Additionally, schedule symmetry is gone, as some NFL teams will have nine home games and eight road games while others will play eight at home and nine on the road. That could give the teams with more home games a slight competitive advantage, though that number will shift from year to year.
Finishing with a .500 record is now unlikely, as well. Doing that would require a team to notch a tie and go 8-8-1. Technically, there are more ways for a team to go .500 than that, but all would require at least three ties, including one scenario in which a team could go 0-0-17 to finish with a .500 record.
Aside from that, there aren’t a lot of changes to the schedule itself. There’s just one more game.
Is the NFL adding another bye week to the schedule?
No. Teams will still have just one bye week during a 17-game schedule.
Are the playoffs impacted by a 17-game schedule?
The NFL playoffs will be pushed back by about one week since the NFL season is starting at the same time but is adding another week to the regular season. That means that the Super Bowl will no longer take place on the first Sunday in February; it will be played on the second Sunday in February.
Could NFL teams opt to rest players more during a 17-game season?
It certainly seems possible. NFL players suffer a lot of wear and tear, so as the season goes along, teams will need to manage the health of their players more, especially teams that are out of contention. Games are still scarce at the NFL level, so load management doesn’t seem likely. But in the latter stages of the season, teams out of contention could choose to rest their starters earlier or more than usual.
How does a 17-game schedule impact fantasy football?
It depends on your league’s structure. However, with the NFL season now expanding to 18 weeks, fantasy owners will have the option to expand to a 17-week schedule while skipping the traditionally avoided final week of the season.
We here at Sporting News anticipate most fantasy leagues will adopt a 17-week schedule to accommodate that change.
How was the NFL’s 17th game decided?
The format for deciding the NFL’s 17th game is relatively simple. The NFL matches up divisions from the AFC and NFC against one another, and the opponents are determined based on their finish in last year’s standings. The first-place teams match up with the first-place teams, second-place with second-place, etc.
In 2021, the divisional matchups are as follows:
- AFC East vs. NFC East
- NFC North vs. AFC West
- NFC South vs. AFC South
- NFC West vs. AFC North
For example, the Washington Football Team finished first in the NFC East while the Buffalo Bills finished first in the AFC East. So, they’ll play one another as will the No. 2 finishers from those divisions, the Giants and the Dolphins. So will the third-place teams, the Cowboys and the Patriots. The NFL did that for each division to determine the 17th matchup.
How are the NFL’s other 16 scheduled games decided?
The NFL has long had a formula for how to decide each team’s 16 opponents. It is as follows:
- Six games (home and away) against divisional opponents
- Four games against a complete out-of-conference division; the divisions rotate on a yearly basis
- Four games against a complete in-conference division; once again, the divisions rotate yearly
- Two games against remaining in-conference opponents that finished in the same standing divisionally in the previous season (example: the third-place team from the AFC East would place third-place team from the AFC North).
Will the NFL ever expand to 18 games?
Maybe, but it won’t happen until after the 2030 season. The NFL CBA gave the owners the right to expand to a 17-game schedule, but any further expansion beyond that would have to be negotiated with the players. Considering that not all were happy with the expansion to 17 games, expanding to an 18-game schedule in the next decade doesn’t seem likely.
The NFL might like the idea of an 18-game season, though. That would allow for scheduling symmetry to return with each team playing nine games at home and nine on the road. Additionally, the 18th game would allow the NFL to tack another week onto their season, which means the Super Bowl would be played the day before President’s Day, a national holiday, most years.
The NFL has expressed a desire to host Super Bowls the day before President’s Day, which falls on the third Monday in February. Under the current CBA, that will happen in 2027, when the Super Bowl falls on February 14th. But if the league added another week, it would happen on almost a yearly basis.