Following an experiment with revealing the schedule during the second week of April, the NFL has typically changed to releasing the schedule around the third week of April, between April 15–21, in subsequent years. If Easter falls during this week, the program may be changed. The schedule is released early so that teams can start preparing for their opponents.
The NFL season starts on Thursday, September 4, with the New England Patriots playing at the Miami Dolphins. The schedule consists of 33 games (including two preseason games), with each team playing the others once. In previous seasons, some teams had more difficult schedules than others, which was reflected in how many home-and-home series each team played against the other teams in the league. For example, every other year the Indianapolis Colts would have a "bye" week, which means that they wouldn't play any games that season. Other teams, such as the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, didn't have byes but instead had "swing" weeks, where they would either play one game at home and one game away from home or vice versa.
Teams also will have different divisional foes each year, with three of the four primary divisions having a guaranteed winner after Week 10. The only exception is the NFC East, which has had three consecutive years without a clear division champion.
Because of the preseason schedule and roster cuts, NFL teams will have an extra day of game preparation this week. Reduced game plans will be distributed (final game plans will be distributed on Wednesday), and both teams will begin their advance study of their Week 1 opponent in the film room.
The distribution of the game plan occurs each year after the conclusion of training camp. The plan is given to all coaches, assistant coaches, and support staff members who were involved with the game plan for the previous season. These individuals then protect the confidentiality of the information contained within the plan by not discussing it with others outside of the organization.
During the summer months, the coaching staffs of most NFL teams conduct a weekly review of the upcoming opponent's film from the prior season. This allows them to see what strategies were effective against that team and what changes can be made for this year's game plan. The staff also looks for ways to counter specific players on the opposing team. For example, if a coach sees that one of his opponents likes to throw the ball downfield often, he might instruct his offense to focus more on stopping those passes.
Finally, the staff reviews any new developments in the league office during the off-season. For example, if a new rule is adopted by the NFL that could impact the way games are played, the coaches would want to make sure they don't forget anything about it when creating their game plan.
At any point, the NFL should be allowed to adopt flexible scheduling. As the league searches for ways to make its game presentation more attractive on TV, it must also embrace new methods to broadcast more interesting games. A flexible schedule is currently unavailable until Week Five, and even then, it may only be utilized twice until Week 10. The idea has support from several prominent figures in the sports world.
The current format of having 16 regular season games every year was adopted in 2002. Over the course of these 16 games, each team will play the others twice - at home and away. If two teams are tied at the end of the season, a tiebreaker system is used to determine who plays where. This process continues until one team remains, which is declared the winner of that year's series.
There have been calls from within the NFL itself for some time now to allow for more flexible scheduling. Commissioner Roger Goodell said as much back in 2014 when he suggested moving Sunday night games to another day of the week other than Monday. "I think there's great interest among fans to see more exciting games," he said at the time. "And I think there's interest among broadcasters to see different matchups being played."
Goodell also noted at the time that changing the start time of games would help accomplish this goal. He pointed out that early starts on Sunday mornings are difficult for many people to watch due to churchgoing habits and that late afternoon games provide less competition for primetime slots.