The NFL has been playing a 16 game schedule since 1978. When the Houston Texans joined the NFL in 2002 it changed how schedules were determined and it created a system that as long as there are 32 teams playing a 16 game schedule the formula to determine who we will play is already set.
For the sake of this thread, I am going to put the home teams in blue, the away teams in red.
Hint...One thing that aids the NFL in choosing these patterns is alphabetical order of the host cities. The only division with an exception to this alphabetical order is the NFC West. The NFL decided to separate Seattle and San Francisco so that teams are not going all the way to the West Coast twice every year they face those teams. So, San Francisco is paired with Arizona and Seattle with St. Louis. You will notice that I will put the teams in alphabetical order according to host city and the blue will be side by side as will the red.
For instance the alphabetical order of the NFC East is...
New York Giants
For levels 2 & 3 of this explanation the Giants will therefore have the exact same home and away opponents that we do for the year.
The first level of determining opponents is easy. At the Division level we play a home and away series against our Division rivals, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.
Home...Giants, Eagles, & Redskins
Away...Giants, Eagles, & Redskins
That accounts for 6 of the 16 games already.
I am sure everyone already knew this.
The second level of determining opponents is still relatively easy. It pertains to NFC teams. Each year we will play one whole NFC Division.
In 2002 we played the NFC West. Cardinals
, & Seahawks
In 2003 we played the NFC South. Falcons
, & Buccaneers
In 2004 we played the NFC North. Bears
, & Vikings
This means in 2005 we again played the NFC West, 2006 the NFC South, and 2007 the NFC North.
Repeat the pattern, 2008 NFC West, 2009 NFC South, this year NFC North.
It follows that pattern. NFC West, NFC South, NFC North. What changes is the Home and Away series. For example, this year we are playing the NFC North again. We have the Bears and Lions at home. We have the Packers and Vikings on the road.
What this means is that if you go back to 2007
you should see that we played the Packers and Vikings at Home, but played the Bears and Lions on the road. If you go back to 2004
you will see that we played the NFC North at the same locations that we are this year.
Next year we will once again play the NFC West. If you look at the pattern you already know we will have the Cardinals and Rams at home, the 49ers and Seahawks on the road in 2011.
This accounts for 10 of the 16 games when added to the Division rivalries.
The third level of of determining opponents is the same as the last level only it uses a rotation of AFC Divisions and is every 4 years instead of every 3 years.
In 2002 we played the AFC South. Texans
, & Titans
In 2003 we played the AFC East. Bills
, & Jets
In 2004 we played the AFC North. Ravens
, & Steelers
In 2005 we played the AFC West. Broncos
, & Chargers
So it is going to follow that pattern. South in 2006, East in 2007, North in 2008, and West in 2009.
2010 brings us back to the top. If you look at our schedule we are indeed playing the Texans and Colts at their house and the Jaguars and Titans at home.
Which means in 2011 you can already assume the Bills and Dolphins at home, the Patriots and Jets on the road.
This takes care of 14 of the 16 games.
Okay, the final phase of determining opponents is the one that always confuses people. It involves the Same Place Finisher (SPF) for the two NFC Divisions we are not facing. One of the games will be at home, the other on the road giving us a balance of 8 home games and 8 road games.
Just like every other stage of this formula this stage rotates.
In 2002 we played the NFC West. This means we would play the SPF from the North and South. One at home. One on the road. In 2002 this means we played SPF from the NFC South
(Panthers) at home and the SPF from the NFC North
) on the road.
You already know that in 2005 this pattern came back, but this time the SPF from the NFC North
(Lions) was at home and the SPF from the NFC South
(Panthers) was on the road.
In 2008 it was again the SPF from the NFC South
(Buccaneers) at home and the SPF from the NFC North
) on the road.
In 2011 it will once again be the SPF from the NFC North
(TBD) was at home and the SPF from the NFC South
(TBD) was on the road.
In 2003 we played the NFC South. So the SPFs were from the NFC North & NFC West. We played the SPF from the NFC North
(Lions) on the road, and the SPF from the NFC West
(Cardinals) on the road.
Follow the same pattern of switching as above for 2006 and 2009.
In 2004 we played the NFC North. This means we played the SPF from the NFC West and the NFC South. We played the SPF from the NFC South
(Saints) at home, and the SPF from the NFC West
(Seahawks) on the road.
Follow the same pattern of switching as above for 2007 and 2010.
This brings us to what we already know for 2011. We already know 14 of our 16 opponents by virtue of the first three phases of this schedule and we know where we will play.
I also already gave you the pattern for SPFs for 2011. Thus this is our schedule for 2011.
Home...Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Cardinals, Rams, Bills, Dolphins, SPF NFC North
Away...Giants, Eagles, Redskins, 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots, Jets, SPF NFC South
From this formula you should be able to figure out our schedule for as long as their are 16 games and 32 teams.
If that is too much math for you there is always the thread I linked above from the History Zone. I guarantee you it is dead solid accurate.
At one time we had 3 straight years of playing Carolina on the road. We are currently in a similar road stretch for the Packers. It has to do with our normal rotation of them on the road being surrounded by seasons when they would be our SPF on the road in the 2 years we don't play their divisions.
In other words, a team could have to face Dallas 3 straight years at home too. They just have to be our home SPF for that Division for the 2 years surrounding their already scheduled season to come here.