How will the 17-game regular season schedule work?

Washington Football Report

NFL owners recently voted to expand the regular season to 17 games

After 43 years of 16-game seasons, the NFL is expanding the regular season schedule in 2021.

In a vote at the virtual Zoom-based owner’s meeting this week, it was agreed that a 17-game regular season schedule will be implemented in the coming season. In conjunction with that move, the preseason will be reduced from four to three games. The move has been widely anticipated since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was signed between the owners and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) last March. The move was also spurred by the financial impact of COVID-19 on the league revenues in 2020.

There are a number of questions raised by the move to a 17-game season.

Will the owners now try to move to 18 games?

In fact, the owners initially tried to negotiate an 18-game season with the NFLPA in the most current round of CBA negotiations, but the players refused to agree. Instead, the current agreement, which runs for another ten years, through 2030, allows the owners to expand the season by adding a 17th game, but specifically prohibits them from adding an 18th game during the life of the agreement – meaning that fans won’t see an 18-game season before 2031 at the earliest.

Is this just a money-grab by the owners?

The owners expanded the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 teams last season, adding an extra playoff game with its associated revenues. The expanded playoffs appear to be a permanent fixture at this point. With the expansion of the regular season to 17 games, owners will add more revenue. Players, however, will benefit financially from both moves since the league revenue is split between owners and players. More income means more money for player benefits and salary cap.

What about player safety?

There was significant opposition to the expansion from many players, whose primary argument against it was the likely negative effect on player health and safety. Ultimately, however, a majority of players voted to accept the negotiated CBA with its provisions for an expanded regular season and the associated pay increases for players.

Will the players make more money now?

Players will make more money, and that will happen both individually and collectively.

Firstly, the extra week of play means increased revenue both at the stadiums and from media broadcasts. Due to the fact that players share in revenue, this added income will lead to an increase in the salary cap. From this point on, there won’t be any special provisions for the 17th game; it will simply be the standard in the NFL.

The NFLPA, however, wanted to make sure players taking the field in 2021 weren’t forced to play more football without getting paid more money. For this reason, the new CBA contains provisions to increase players’ salaries, though it doesn’t apply to every player in the league.

Basically, a player who is earning more than the league minimum will receive an extra game check as long as he’s on the roster (including IR) for the 17th game. The extra payment will be equal to his per-game earnings for the other 16 games that were anticipated when he signed his contract.

But this pay increase only applies to players who signed new contracts before February 26, 2020, because by that time, it was clear that the 17th regular season game was imminent. In general, then, players who have a contract that was signed before last February will get a pay raise equal to one game’s salary that will begin in 2021 and continue until the end of the player’s current contract. Given the typical contract length of the NFL, this effect should wash through the system pretty quickly.

So will the season start earlier?

The season won’t start earlier, but there will be two changes. With the preseason being shortened by a week, in 2021 at least, there will be an extra week between the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season. In other words, the 4th preseason game will be cancelled without that cancellation triggering any other schedule change in either the preseason or regular season. The other change is that Super Bowl LVI will be played a week later, on February 13th, 2022 in Los Angeles.

The dates of future super bowls have yet to be finalized, but it is expected that they will be similarly delayed until mid-February.

In 2021, the NFL kicks off the season as expected with Thursday Night Football on September 9th, 2021, but the end of the season -- which is now Week 18 – will be played on Sunday, January 9th, 2022.

How will opponents be determined?

The added game will be an AFC-NFC matchup that will involve the pairing of divisions. Currently, each division in the NFC is paired annually against an AFC division; with 4 divisions in each conference, this results in a 4 year cycle, and represents 4 games annually on each team’s schedule.

To accommodate the 17th game, each division will be paired with a different division in the opposing conference, adding one game annually to each team’s schedule. The final standings from the previous season will determine the matchups. For example, in 2021, the 17th game pairing pits the NFC East against the AFC East. Since Washington and Buffalo each won their respective division championships in 2020, they will play each other in the added game in 2021.

Does this mean the 17th game will be played in Week 18?

People referring to the “17th game” are only saying that another game has been added to the long-standing 16-game schedule. It doesn’t mean that the intra-conference matchup will be the final game of the season; in fact, it’s almost certain not to be.

The NFL has a long-standing practice of scheduling inter-divisional games at the beginning and end of the regular season to take advantage of rivalries that drive interest in the games and to keep playoff hopes alive for as long as possible – again, to maintain interest in the games as late in the season as possible. For this reason, the “17th game”, which is an intra-conference matchup, is more likely to be played in the middle part of the season. In short, the scheduling practices of the past few decades will remain the same; they will just be applied to the expanded schedule of 17 games over 18 weeks.

Will there be an extra bye week?

No. While that possibility arose during conversations about a 17-game schedule, the teams will still receive only one bye. The 17 games will be played over the course of 18 weeks.

How will the NFL maintain home-away competitive balance with an odd number of games?

The 32 NFL teams will no longer play an equal number of home and away games in a single season. Instead, the AFC teams will be the home team in the added game in odd years (‘21, ‘23, ‘25 and so on) while the NFC teams will be the home team in even years (ie. ‘22, ‘24, ‘26).

The home-away balance will arguably be maintained over two seasons, and all teams in a given division or conference will have the same number of home/away games each season.

What does this mean for international games?

International games will continue to be played. Due largely to concerns related to COVID and international travel, however, the international series will be suspended again in 2021, with plans to resume in 2022. According to an NFL press release, “(T)he enhanced season will ensure that beginning in 2022, all 32 clubs will play internationally at least once every eight years." The league expects to continue playing up to four international games every season, with the focus on Canada, Europe, Mexico, South American and the United Kingdom.

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