The NFL uses a scheduling formula to determine which teams will play each other in the regular season. Since the final day of the 2014 season, the Cowboys have known their opponents for the coming 2015 season.
Sure, the Cowboys play the other teams in their division twice a year, once at home and once on the road (NY Giants, Eagles, and Redskins). But why are the Cowboys playing the Saints for the third time in three straight years, and why do they have to go all the way to Buffalo to play the Bills?
When the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, the league introduced a scheduling formula that guaranteed that all teams played each other on a regular rotating basis.
There are 16 regular season games, and here’s the breakdown
*HOME AND AWAY GAMES VERSUS YOUR THREE DIVISION OPPONENTS: For the Cowboys who are in the NFC East, it means two games each (one at home, one on the road) versus the Eagles, Giants and Redskins. Division games account for 6 of your 16 games.
*FOUR INTRA-CONFERENCE GAMES VERSUS ANOTHER DIVISION: The Cowboys are in the NFC East. In 2015, the NFC East is matched up with the NFC South. So every team in the NFC East will play a team in the NFC South (Saints, Buccaneers, Panthers, and Falcons). Two of those games are at home, two are away. This season, the Cowboys host the Panthers & Falcons. The Cowboys play the Saints and Bucs on the road. When the NFC East and the NFC South face each other again in three years, the opposite will happen (Cowboys will have to go on the road at the Panthers & Falcons, and the Saints and Bucs will come to Arlington). Why did I write that we face the NFC South again in 3 years? Because you rotate divisions within the conference. Last year the NFC East faced the NFC West. It rotates year-to-year. Next year, in 2016, it will be time to face the NFC North one again. In 2017 it will be the NFC West. In 2018, it will be the NFC South.
Okay, so far we have accounted for 10 of the 16 games. How do you come up with the final 6?
*FOUR NON-CONFERENCE GAMES VERSUS A DIVISION IN ANOTHER CONFERENCE: This year, the NFC East is matched against the AFC East (Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins). The Cowboys go on the road to Buffalo to play the Bills and head to Miami to play at the Dolphins. The Cowboys will host the Patriots and the Jets.
Last year the NFC East played the AFC South, that’s why the Cowboys had games against the Colts, Texans, Jaguars and Titans.
Okay, now we’re up to 14 games. How do you figure out the final 2 opponents?
*TWO INTRA-CONFERENCE GAMES BASED ON PREVIOUS SEASON’S STANDINGS: In other words, within the NFC, first-place teams play other first-place teams. Second-place teams play second-place teams. Third-place teams play third-place teams. Fourth-place plays fourth-place.
Last year, the Cowboys finished in first place in the NFC East. That means they have to play other NFC teams that finished in first place. The Packers finished in first place in the NFC North, so the Cowboys will play the Packers. And the Seahawks finished in first place in the NFC West, so the Cowboys play the Seahawks. The Panthers finished in first place in the NFC South, but the Cowboys were already scheduled to play them because the NFC East is matched up this season with the NFC South. So that was pre-determined.
So to review, the final two Cowboys’ intra-conference games are against the first-place Packers and first-place Seahawks. The scheduling formula already worked out (as part of its annual rotation) that in 2015 the first place NFC East team would host the first place NFC West team, so that’s why the Seahawks must travel to Arlington. The formula called for the NFC North winner to host the winner of the NFC East, so that’s why the Cowboys must travel to Green Bay.
Now let’s pull everything together regarding the schedule:
*This season the Cowboys play the Eagles, Redskins and Giants twice because they’re all within the same division, the NFC East.
*The Cowboys play the Saints, Bucs, Panthers and Falcons because the NFC East is matched-up intra-conference with the NFC South.
*The Cowboys play the Patriots, Jets, Bills and Dolphins because the NFC East is matched up in non-conference games versus the AFC East.
*The Cowboys play the Seahawks and Packers because all three NFC teams won their division (and the Cowboys are already set up to play the other NFC division winner, the Panthers, as part of the matchup with the NFC South).
As for the specific dates on which games are played in 2015, that’s also determined by the NFL with the help of a computer they use for scheduling all 32 teams that have different needs such as stadium availability and special dates (for example, the Cowboys & Lions play at home each Thanksgiving Day).
Stadium availability is a big factor. Most venues host more than NFL football. So there are concerts and conventions and college football games to consider. For example, the Oakland Raiders share a stadium with baseball’s Oakland A’s, so the league has to factor the A’s schedule into the equation.
Also, the league tries to avoid sending a team on three consecutive road games. There are also games on Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, and Saturday Night Football to consider. You can’t have a team play on a Sunday if it just played on a Thursday night, for example.
And most importantly, which matchups do the television networks find most desirable? The Cowboys are always ratings gold, so NBC and ESPN and CBS/NFL Network want them as part of their prime time schedule. The Packers and Steelers are always big draws, too, so they get lots of prime time exposure. The Patriots are reigning Super Bowl champs, so they are wanted, too. And networks love matchups like Peyton Manning with Eli Manning, etc.
This year, the Packers plan to retire Brett Favre’s jersey. They’ll have a ceremony during a home game in Green Bay honoring Favre. Hmm….sounds like huge ratings. Hmmm…big surprise….the Packers will host a home game on THANKSGIVING NIGHT against their biggest rival, the Bears. That’s a ratings bonanza.
As for the Cowboys regular season opener in 2015, a game at AT&T Stadium versus the division rival New York Giants…well, that’s a natural. Big game between two rivals…and New York is the largest media market in the country. NBC chose this matchup as its first Sunday Night Football broadcast the regular season. In total, the Cowboys will be featured in 5 prime time national games (that’s the maximum allowed per team, per season). And don’t be surprised if the December games at Green Bay and Buffalo (or the home game on January 3rd versus the Redskins) gets “flexed” to a national broadcast.
So that’s a thumbnail sketch of how the schedule works. Your opponents and locations (home or away) are predetermined by a formula. But the actual dates on which the games are played are influenced by other factors such as stadium availability and broadcast networks vying for the matchups which will bring the most eyeballs to their television signals.