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Gray Matter Mailbag: Scheduling Formula

Posted Dec 27, 2013

In this week's Gray Matter fan mailbag, Editor Gray Caldwell dives into why the Broncos will travel to New England for the third consecutive season.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- I thought I'd do something a little different with this week's Gray Matter mailbag, because I pretty exclusively got one question over and over. So I'll dive into the one topic that seems to be on everyone's mind.

BACK-TO-BACK OUTSIDE DIVISION
Matchup Years
at BAL 2002-03
at CIN 2003-04
at JAX 2004-05
vs. BAL 2005-06
vs. JAX 2007-08
at BAL 2009-10
at TEN 2010-11
vs. NYJ 2010-11
at NE 2012-13, 2013-14

The Broncos' 2014 opponents are now finalized, and next year's schedule includes a trip to New England for the third consecutive year.

That, of course, drew some reaction on Twitter.

Leading up to this year's matchup in Week 12, even Peyton Manning poked a little fun at how often it seems he has to travel to Gillette Stadium.

"It seems like I sure do go there a lot — out there to Foxborough. I don’t know how that always works, I guess it’s always random they say, but it’s been strange how that works out," he laughed.

Before I get to my attempt at an explanation, I want to thank everyone who submitted a question this week. You can send me questions all week long on Twitter to @GrayCaldwell using the hashtag #GrayMatter.

OK, here we go.

It's a more complicated answer than I originally thought when I started putting this together.

So let's start from the beginning.

Under the NFL scheduling formula, each team's 16 regular-season games are determined as follows:

AFC EAST
Year Played Notable
2002 Entire division
2003 vs. NE
2004 vs. MIA
2005 Entire division
2006 at NE
2007 at BUF
2008 Entire division
2009 vs. NE
2010 vs. NYJ
2011 Entire division vs. NYJ
2012 at NE
2013 at NE
2014 Entire division at NE
  • Home and away against three division opponents (six games)
  • The four teams from another division within the conference, which rotates on a three-year cycle (four games)
  • The four teams from a division in the opposite conference, which rotates on a four-year cycle (four games)
  • Two intraconference games based on the prior year's standings, matching a first-place team against two other first-place teams, a second-place team against two other second-place teams, etc. (two games)

The schedule is designed to take each team through a cycle of home and away games against every other team in the league.

When the divisions were reorganized in 2002, the league started a new rotation. From 2002-2009, every team played every other team at least twice -- once home and once away.

In 2010, the decision was made to pair the teams in the AFC West and NFC West differently, so that opposing teams wouldn't have to play at both the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders or the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in the same year. The league didn't want two teams in a division to have two West-coast trips while the other two teams didn't have any.

At that point, the Broncos and Chiefs were no longer paired up -- instead, the Broncos and Raiders are now paired up. For example, this year the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans both travelled to Denver and Oakland, while the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans travelled to Kansas City and San Diego. Every team in the AFC South division had one West-coast trip.

That meant that in 2010 the cycle essentially reset for the Broncos.

AFC SOUTH
Year Played Notable
2002 vs. IND
2003 at IND
2004 Entire division at JAX
2005 at JAX
2006 vs. IND
2007 Entire division vs. JAX
2008 vs. JAX
2009 at IND
2010 Entire division at TEN
2011 at TEN
2012 vs. HOU
2013 Entire division
2014 vs. IND

That's the reason, for example, that even though the Broncos played at Carolina and Atlanta in 2008 when the NFC South was in the rotation, they played at both of those venues again in 2011 when the NFC South came back up. The previous rotation would've put the Broncos in New Orleans and Tampa Bay instead, but since the cycle reset in 2010, they were back in Carolina and Atlanta.

That brings us to the question of why the Broncos will play in New England for the third consecutive season.

Let's start with the easy part of the answer. In 2011, the Broncos hosted the Patriots when the entire AFC West and AFC East faced one another. That meant that the next time the two teams squared off, it would come in Foxborough, Mass.

That's why Denver will play at New England in 2014.

As for why the two teams played in New England in 2012 and 2013, it gets complicated again.

First we have to get back to the schedule rotation. Every three years, the Broncos will have played every team in the AFC. Every four years, the Broncos will have played every team in the NFC.

With that in mind, every 12 years the rotations in both conferences will match up and come to an end at the same time. Denver will have played every AFC team four times and every NFC team three times, and the rotation will start over. Multiply that by two to account for the same number of home and away games against every team in the NFC, and the full rotation is designed to even out every 24 years.

It's the same with the intraconference games based on standings. Those aren't designed to even out over a two-year stretch. They're designed to even out over a 24-year stretch.

AFC NORTH
Year Played Notable
2002 at BAL
2003 Entire division at BAL, at CIN
2004 at CIN
2005 vs. BAL
2006 Entire division vs. BAL
2007 vs. PIT
2008 at CLE
2009 Entire division at BAL
2010 at BAL
2011 vs. CIN
2012 Entire division
2013 vs. BAL
2014 at CIN

So even though the Broncos and Patriots played as champions from their respective divisions in individual intraconference matchups in both 2012 and 2013 -- and both were on the road for Denver -- over the full 24-year rotation, that is designed to even out.

A look back at 2009 and 2010 helps demonstrate that point. In those years, the Broncos played an AFC East team based on the previous year's standings -- and both came at home. It just so happened that only one of those years had the Broncos and Patriots matched up -- 2009 -- and the game came at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. In 2010, it was the Jets that headed to Denver as both teams had finished second in their respective divisions in the previous season.

After the Broncos play the entire AFC East, for the next two seasons, an AFC East team will be one of the club's two intraconference games based on standings. Even if they aren't home-and-away in those back-to-back seasons, it should all even out in the full 24-year cycle.

The AFC East happens to be the outlier of the Broncos' intraconference opponents based on standings in that the games have gone home-home, then away-away. The AFC South alternates home and away, as does the AFC North.

Phew. If you made it through that, hopefully it helped answer the question.

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