How the NFL Season Works

If you do not live somewhere that NFL coverage is common, it can be difficult to learn all of the different stages of the season and figure out which games are played when. Hopefully this will help you out some.

League Structure

The NFL, or the National Football League, is the highest form of professional football in the world. The League consists of 32 teams across the United States. The NFL has two conferences called the AFC and the NFC, and each conference consists of 16 teams. These conferences are fairly arbitrary and do not have anything to do with geography.

Conversely, each conference has four divisions: North, East, South, and West (so there is an AFC North and a NFC North, an AFC East and a NFC East, etc.). Because each team plays the other teams in its division most-often, this reduces the amount of travel and helps to form rivalries between neighboring cities.

You can find a map of where the teams are here.

The Season

You could say the season begins each year with the NFL Draft, in which teams choose teams from college to join their team.

A few months later, in late July teams start training camp which is a few weeks for every team to gather, learn any new plays, and practice, practice, practice. In early August teams begin to play their four pre-season games, which are games against other teams, but do not count towards their record for the season. Pre-season games allow players to get back up to speed of playing against an actual opponent and give younger players more in-game experience.

The regular season, which are the games that actually counts, starts in September. The first game of the season is usually on a Thursday night. One of the teams in the first game is the team that won the Super Bowl the year before.

The vast majority of games in the NFL are played on Sunday. Most weeks there is one game on Thursday night, one game on Sunday night, and one game on Monday night; the rest of the games are on Sunday afternoon (assuming you’re somewhere in the United States’ time zones).

The regular season lasts for 17 weeks. Every team plays 16 regular season games (eight at home and eight away) and has one week off that is called a bye week.

In order to qualify for the playoffs teams must either be the winner of their division or a wild card team—which are the top two teams from each conference that did not win their division. In total there are 12 teams—six from each conference that qualify for the playoffs.

In the first three weeks of the playoffs the teams play the other teams in their conference to determine the champion of each conference. These two teams—the AFC and NFC champions—play two weeks later in the Super Bowl, which is the championship of the NFL.

In the off week between the playoffs and the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl or the All-Star Game of the NFL is played in Honolulu, Hawaii. It is usually a high scoring game, because players do not want to hit each other too hard for risk of injury.


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