The NFL has expanded its regular-season slate three times in the 100-year history of the league, but they haven’t added another game to the schedule since the league went from 14 to 16 games in 1978. The current 32-year streak between expanding games is the longest in league history, even though that will soon change if the new proposed collective bargaining agreement is agreed to by the players. The highlight of the latest collective bargaining agreement is the league expanding from a 16-game schedule to 17 games, which would be the most regular season games the league has ever had. There were also plenty of other changes that will be implemented with a 17-game schedule including an expanded postseason from 12 teams to 14.
So what do NFL fans need to know about the expanded schedule? Let’s take a look:
The 17-game season won’t be implemented right away
Even if the new CBA is approved, the change from 16 to 17 games won’t take effect in 2020. The league could switch to 17 games as early as 2021 when the new CBA would start, but the league’s proposal currently suggests this won’t be implemented until 2022 (again that can change with the new CBA). While 2021 seems plausible, 2022 makes more sense (it’s also the final year of the NFL’s current TV deals while the ESPN “Monday Night Football” deal expires in 2021).
10 home dates in a season
The NFL’s current structure has 10 home games for each team — eight regular season games and two preseason games. That isn’t expected to change under the new format. Going to 17 games means the NFL will shorten the preseason from four games to three, as CBS NFL Insider Jason La Canfora reported on CBSSports HQ Wednesday. With a three-game preseason, some teams will have nine home games in the regular season and one home preseason game while other teams would have eight home regular season games and two home preseason games (per the Boston Globe). While that schedule seems imbalanced, the NFL would flip the schedule for the next year to accommodate the teams that had just eight regular season home games from the year prior.
An extra bye week
Going to 17 games would result in the reduction of the preseason, but also, another bye week would need to be implemented on the calendar. The NFL actually experimented with two bye weeks in a 16-game schedule in 1993 only to nix it and go back to just one bye week in 1994. With a 17-game schedule, the league would run 19 weeks and the regular season would either have to start Labor Day weekend (like it did from 1990 to 2001) or end past New Year’s Day in mid-January. The NFL has toyed with the idea of having the Super Bowl on President’s Day weekend in the past and an extra bye week would make that possible.
The NFL has had the 12-team playoff format since 1990, with the top two seeds getting first-round byes in each conference. The expansion to a 14-team playoff would drastically alter the current playoff format. Seven teams from each conference would make the playoffs with only the top seed earning a bye into the divisional round. Six wild card games would be played (No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6, No. 4 vs. No. 5) in a tripleheader slate of games on Saturday and Sunday. Having the No. 1 seed will be huge in this playoff format, especially since that seed will be the only team with a bye and that team will get home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. No team has won the Super Bowl that played on wild card weekend since 2013, even though more teams will have the opportunity to break that streak under this new format.
Now that we explained the expanded schedule, let’s look at ways the NFL can be creative with this 17th game:
Instead of some teams playing nine home games and the others playing eight, why not spice the schedule up a bit? How about the NFL has a week with all 32 teams playing at a neutral site instead of in their home stadium? There are plenty of potential options for the league to consider, especially playing in cities that don’t have a NFL team or playing a weekend game on a college campus. Imagine an Eagles-Steelers game at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium or a Cowboys-Texans game at Texas’ Darrell Royal Stadium? How about a Packers game in Milwaukee or a Chargers game in San Diego (dare we dream)? The NFL could reach untapped markets and grow the game even larger in the United States than it already is.
The NFL has floated around the idea of the 17th game being played outside the United States, which would divide the schedule with eight home games, eight road games, and one “International Series” game. Obviously some of these games would be played in London, but the league could also add games in Mexico City (which already hosts one NFL game a season). The league could also enter new markets in Germany and Spain (Berlin, Madrid, or Barcelona) or potentially try other countries such as Japan, Australia or Brazil (former American Bowl sites). The NFL once staged international games in Toronto, while other Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, and Ottawa could be options. If the league is committed to making football a global game, having NFL regular season games around the world would be a huge step in that direction.
The NFL’s current regular season structure has six games against division opponents, and a team plays against all four teams in one other division from each conference. The final two games on a team’s schedule are against the two remaining teams in the same conference that finished in the same position in their respective divisions the previous season. That makes up 16 games, but what will the league do for a 17th game? How about this proposal from late Texans owner Bob McNair back in 2010: For the 17th game, the league could go to “regional rivalries” no matter the conference. An example would be the Eagles play the Steelers, the Jets play the Giants, and the Ravens play the Redskins every season instead of once every four years. Both teams could rotate home dates or play at a neutral site every year. The NFL needs to be creative with the 17th game, especially since this could generate even more fan interest and higher TV ratings.
The league is adding more games, which means more opportunities for networks in the next television deal. The league could definitely change from the current Sunday 1 p.m., 4:25 p.m., and 8:20 p.m. ET format, “Monday Night Football”, and “Thursday Night Football” structure with 19 weeks as opposed to 17. Thursday Night Football is likely to stay, but there is plenty of tinkering for the league on Sunday and Monday. The NFL could experiment with more Saturday games in December and January, as opposed to the one tripleheader they had in Week 16 of last year. How about a Monday Night Football doubleheader with a game on the East Coast starting at 7 p.m. and the West Coast game starting at 10 p.m.? The league does this on opening weekend with “Monday Night Football,” but this could happen every week with more games and a longer schedule. With more international games on the way, the league will likely have more 9:30 a.m. ET starts. If the NFL really wanted to be radical, the league could change the start times on Sunday to 12:30 p.m., 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. for the Sunday regional window. With the expanded schedule, everything is up in the air.