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History of the NFL’s structure and formats, part two

Posted by Jason Lisk on May 19, 2008

This post is a continuation of History of the NFL's Structure and Formats part one, which covered professional football from 1920 to 1959.

The American Football League and America's Team: 1960-1965

1960 was a watershed year for professional football. A group of wealthy businessmen, including Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams and Ralph Wilson, formed a rival league to challenge the NFL. The American Football League (AFL) began play in 1960 with eight franchises, all of whom are still in existence today. Prior to 1960, the NFL was primarily centered in the Northeast and in the Great Lakes region, with only the Los Angeles Rams and San Fransisco 49ers located outside this geographic area. The AFL took advantage of the U.S. population growth westward and southward following World War II by establishing primarily in markets where the NFL had no prior presence, five of which were west of the Mississippi River.

The AFL placed competing franchises in the two largest cities, with the New York Titans and the Los Angeles Chargers. The Boston Patriots filled a void in the only major Northeast market that did not have an NFL franchise, as Boston had been without a team since the Boston Yanks of the NFL folded after the 1948 season. The Buffalo Bills were the remaining East Coast entrant, adopting the same name as a previous AAFC franchise in Buffalo. The league added two teams in Texas, the Dallas Texans and the Houston Oilers. The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders were the other original members.

The AFL designated Boston, New York, Buffalo and Houston to compete in the Eastern Division, and Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland to compete in the West. Though the league was divided in two divisions, all eight members played each other on a home and away basis, for a 14-game regular season schedule. The winners of the Eastern and Western Divisions met in a championship game.

The same year that the AFL was formed, the NFL expanded south and west as well. The Dallas Cowboys began play under first time coach Tom Landry in 1960. The Cowboys were nominally designated as a member of the Western Division, but actually played each of the other twelve teams once (going 0-11-1). The remaining teams played each division opponent twice (10 games), one game against the expansion Cowboys, and one other game against a team from the other division. The Cardinals also ended a forty year city rivalry with the Bears when they moved to Saint Louis prior to the 1960 season.

In 1961, the NFL balanced the number of teams to fourteen by adding another expansion team, the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings were placed in the Western Division, and of course, Dallas was moved to the East. The addition of Minnesota forced the league to go to a 14-game schedule, matching the AFL. Each division opponent played each other twice (12 games), plus two additional games against two opponents from the other division. The winners of each division continued to meet in a championship game. The NFL kept this same format through 1965.

In the AFL, the Chargers moved a few hours south to San Diego in 1961, but otherwise the league continued with the same format as its inaugural season. For the 1963 season, the defending AFL champion Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs, and the New York Titans changed their name to the New York Jets. Other than those changes, the AFL remained the same from 1960 to 1965.

Super Bowl and Sun Belt Expansion: 1966-1969

In 1966, both the AFL and NFL expanded to the Sun Belt. The Miami Dolphins joined the AFL as its ninth franchise, placed in the AFL East. The AFL adjusted its schedule as a result. The four teams in the AFL West continued to play each other twice, and played eight games against teams from the AFL East, playing three of the teams twice, and the remaining two once. To accomodate the imbalance in number of teams in each division, two of the Eastern Division teams had to play each other only once during the regular season. In 1966, it was Miami and Boston that met once, and in 1967, it was Houston and New York.

The Atlanta Falcons joined the NFL as the fifteenth franchise in 1966. They were nominally placed in the Eastern Division, but the league handled their schedule much as Dallas had been handled in 1960. The Falcons played each of the other NFL members once, while the other teams played all division opponents twice, the Falcons once, and one other team from the other division.

Of course, the biggest change in 1966 was the introduction of the AFL-NFL championship game (later named the Super Bowl), which took place at a neutral location. The NFL champion Green Bay Packers defeated the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 on January 15, 1967 at the Colosseum in Los Angeles, California.

The following year, in another step leading toward merger between the two leagues, the NFL and AFL used a common draft to select college players, even though the two leagues continued to compete separately in the regular season.

In 1967, the New Orleans Saints became the sixteenth member of the NFL. With the addition of New Orleans, the league drastically altered its structure. The NFL split into two conferences and four total divisions, each with four teams. Atlanta moved to the Western Conference, which consisted of the Coastal and Central Divisions. Atlanta joined Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Fransisco in the Coastal Division. Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota were in the Central. New Orleans went to the Eastern Conference, placed in the Capital Division with Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington. The Century Division consisted of Cleveland, New York Giants, Pittsburgh, and Saint Louis.

The league kept a fourteen game schedule. Each team played every division opponent twice (6 games), the Western conference teams (Coastal versus Central) and Eastern conference teams (Century versus Capital) played each other once (4 games), and in 1967, the Coastal division played the Capital division in non-conference games, and the Central division played the Century division (4 games).

The playoffs were altered for the first time since 1933, and for the first time, there would automatically be two rounds of playoff games. Only the four division winners made the playoffs. The Century and Capital Division winners would meet in one semifinal, and the Coastal and Central Division winners in another. In 1967, the Capital Division winner would host the Century Division winner, and the Central Division winner would host the Coastal Division winner, and the Western Conference winner would host the championship game. As a result, the Baltimore Colts, who were 11-0-2 entering the final week of the season (and trying to become the first team since the 1929 Packers to finish without a loss), lost their final game of 1967 at the Los Angeles Rams, and the Colts missed the playoffs despite finishing tied with the Rams for the best record in the league. Then, because of the pre-set hosting arrangement for the playoffs, the Rams, despite having the better record, had to travel to 9-4-1 frigid Green Bay on December 23, 1967, and lost. The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Cleveland Browns in the other semifinal, and then traveled to Green Bay to play in the famous "ice bowl" game on December 31, 1967. The Packers won the game on a Bart Starr sneak at the end, and went on to defeat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II.

The AFL added a tenth member, the Cincinnati Bengals, in 1968. The Bengals were placed in the AFL West. The move allowed the AFL to go back to a balanced fourteen game schedule. Each division opponent met twice (8 games), each team played every team from the opposite division, and played one team from the opposite division twice (6 games). The two division winners continued to meet in the AFL championship game, same as previously.

For the 1968 NFL season, the Giants and Saints switched divisions. The schedule format was otherwise the same, with the non-conference matchups rotated (Coastal versus Century and Central versus Capital). However, the Giants played the Coastal division, and the Saints played the Central, so that these two teams did not play the same non-conference games as their division opponents, despite the division switches. The hosting divisions in the playoffs rotated as well, with the Coastal and Century hosting the semifinals, and the Eastern Conference winner hosting the championship game.

The Baltimore Colts avenged their previous playoff snub by finishing 13-1 in the regular season, including a win at the Rams in the final week, and then coasted through the playoffs with two dominant wins, over the Vikings and Browns. In Super Bowl III, they met the New York Jets. The Colts had been far more dominant in the NFL regular season than the Packers of the previous two seasons, and were probably the most dominant team since the 1962 Green Bay Packers. The Packers had defeated the AFL champions by an average of 22 points in the first two Super Bowls, so when the Jets won Super Bowl III, it truly was a stunning upset, and brought the AFL greater credibility.

The 1969 NFL season used the same format as the previous two seasons. The Giants and Saints again played musical chairs with their division assignments, with the Giants going back to the Century division. The schedule and playoff format was the same as that used in 1967.

The AFL did adopt a change to its playoff structure in 1969. For the first time, non-division winners would play in the playoffs, as the second place finisher from the West would play at the Eastern champ, and the second place finisher from the East would play at the Western champ. The change immediately altered history, as the Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) finished behind the Oakland Raiders in the West, but won at the defending Super Bowl champ Jets in the semifinals, and at Oakland in the championship game, before solidifying the AFL's standing with a solid victory over the NFL champion Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

AFL-NFL Merger: 1970-1975

In 1970, the AFL and NFL officially merged together, to form a league with two conferences (American, National). Three traditional NFL franchises--the Colts, Steelers, and Browns--agreed to switch to the American Football Conference (AFC) so that the two conferences would have balanced membership. The league adopted a three-division format in each conference. The Eastern divisions in each conference had five members, while the Central and Western divisions had four each.

The National Football Conference (NFC) featured Dallas, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Saint Louis and Washington in the East. The former NFL Central division teams (Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota) made up the NFC Central. New Orleans joined former Coastal teams Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Fransisco in the NFC West.

The AFC East featured AFL members Boston, Buffalo, Miami, and the New York Jets, joined by the Baltimore Colts. The AFC Central joined traditional NFL rivals Cleveland and Pittsburgh with the Houston Oilers and Cincinnati Bengals. The AFC West featured the four original AFL West franchises (Denver, Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego).

The change to a two conference, six division format, where every team could play the other at some point, also caused the league to come up with a more complex scheduling format than ever previously used. The league kept the fourteen game regular season schedule used by both the AFL and NFL since 1961. The differences in division sizes and the odd number of teams in each conference caused the league to use several scheduling rules.

First, every team played each division opponent twice. Thus, the East teams played 8 division games, while the Central and West teams played 6 division games. The East teams played 3 games against the conference opponents from the other two divisions. Every team also played 3 games against intra-conference opponents, with one exception. One of the Central/West teams from each conference was required to play an extra intra-conference game so that there would be a balanced 40 intra-conference games (20 home, 20 away for each conference), at the expense of a second Eastern division inter-conference matchup.

The schedules were based on pre-established groupings of teams playing on a rotating basis. I will try to go through specific examples to illustrate the formula used by the NFL during this period. First, using the AFC East, here is a breakdown of the inter-conference pairings. As pointed out by Dolfan316 in the comments to the previous post, Denver was the "odd man out" and played an extra intra-conference game at the expense of a game against the East from 1970-1974. The league used five rotating three-team pairings for the East vs. Central/West matchups, as follows:

Team A: vs. Houston, Kansas City, San Diego
Team B: vs. Cleveland, Oakland, Pittsburgh
Team C: vs. Cincinnati, Kansas City, San Diego
Team D: vs. Cleveland, Houston, Oakland
Team E: vs. Cincinnati, Denver, Pittsburgh

If a team played the Team A group in year N, they would play the Team B group in year N+1. In 1970, Teams A-E were, in order, Baltimore, NY Jets, Boston, Miami, Buffalo. So, for example, the Colts always played the same three conference opponents that the Jets had played the previous season.

The Central and West teams played five inter-conference games, with the exception of the one team each year, like Denver from 1970-1974, who played four inter-conference games. Two of these games were against Eastern opponents, and the other three were between Central and West opponents. The formula here was much simpler. A member of the AFC Central, for example, would play three of the four AFC West teams each year, and the team that was excluded from the schedule was rotated. For example, Cincinnati did not play Denver in 1970, Kansas City in 1971, San Diego in 1972, and Oakland in 1973.

Now, to the intra-conference matchups. Again, I will use the AFC to illustrate the matchups. The AFC teams played thirteen different groups of three teams each, on a rotating pre-set schedule. Here are the groups of teams:

Team A: Chicago, Green Bay, Philadelphia
Team B: Minnesota, NY Giants, Los Angeles
Team C: Dallas, Saint Louis, San Fransisco
Team D: Detroit, New Orleans, Washington
Team E: Atlanta, Green Bay, Philadelphia
Team F: Chicago, NY Giants, Los Angeles
Team G: Dallas, Minnesota, Saint Louis
Team H: Detroit, San Fransisco, Washington
Team I: Atlanta, New Orleans, Philadelphia
Team J: Chicago, Green Bay, Los Angeles
Team K: Minnesota, NY Giants, Saint Louis
Team L: Dallas, Detroit, San Fransisco
Team M: Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington

If an AFC team played the Team A schedule in Year N, they played the Team B schedule in Year N+1, Team C in Year N+2, etc. For 1970, the AFC teams who played Team A - Team M schedules were, respectively, (A) Baltimore, (B) NY Jets, (C) Houston, (D) Cincinnati, (E) Pittsburgh, (F) Buffalo, (G) Kansas City, (H) Oakland, (I) Miami, (J) San Diego, (K) Boston, (L) Cleveland, and (M) Denver. Applying this formula, you should be able to figure out what AFC and NFC teams played each other in any given year from 1970-1975. For example, from looking at the above list, Miami would have played the Team K intra-conference schedule during their perfect 1972 season (Minnesota, NY Giants and Saint Louis).

In addition to those three team pairings, there was one additional AFC-NFC matchup each season. That additional matchup was played between the following teams from 1970-1975:

1970: Denver and San Fransisco
1971: Denver and Detroit
1972: Denver and Atlanta
1973: Denver and Chicago
1974: Denver and Los Angeles
1975: Cleveland and Minnesota

The initial team groupings for intraconference matchups were not necessarily based on divisions. It appears that in 1970, many of the pairings were based on getting certain geographic rivals to pair up in intraconference games, as the Giants played the Jets, Bills and Patriots, the Chiefs played the Cardinals as well as a Super Bowl rematch with the Vikings, the 49ers and Raiders played, San Diego played Los Angeles, Detroit met Cincinnati and Cleveland, Philadelphia played Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Miami played both Atlanta and New Orleans, and Dallas played

The league also changed the playoff structure with the merger. With three division champs in each conference, the league expanded the playoffs to four teams, with the top non-division winner making the playoffs as a wildcard entry, and playing on the road against one of the top two division winners. Along with this change, the league adopted a rule that the wildcard entry could not play a division opponent until the championship game.

I have examined the playoff format used, and quite frankly, am not sure all of the rules for determining who would host playoff games. What I can tell you is that home field was not based on the division winner who had the better record, at least from 1970-1974. The most prominent example of this was the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins playing at Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game. My best guess about what the rules were are as follows:

1) The division winners who would host semifinals games, and who would host the championship game if both home teams won in the divisional round, were determined by a set rotating schedule among the three divisions;
2) However, if the division winner that had to play on the road in the divisional round won, then that team automatically hosted the championship game;
3) If the wildcard entry won in the divisional round, then the division winner that advanced to the championship game would automatically host.

Between 1970-1974, the wildcard team played the worst of the three division winners in the divisional round on five out of ten occasions (meaning that the two best division winners by record met in the semifinals half the time). If my theory is right on how the playoffs were scheduled, the priority rotation for determining which division would host divisional round games and/or the championship game was as follows:

1970: AFC-East, West, Central; NFC-East, Central, West
1971: AFC-West, Central, East; NFC-Central, West, East
1972: AFC-Central, East, West; NFC-West, East, Central
1973: AFC-East, West, Central; NFC-East, Central, West
1974: AFC-West, Central, East; NFC-Central, West, East

Starting in 1975, it appears that the league did go to a "best record" scenario, as the two best records hosted the divisional round, and the best record hosted the championship game. In fact, when I check the listing for 1975, it is the first season where the NFL explains why one division winner was seeded higher than another, when they finished with identical records.

During this period, the league membership remained the same. The only exception was that the Boston Patriots moved down the road to Foxboro, and renamed themselves the New England Patriots in 1971.

28 Teams, 16 Games, and The Wildcard Game: 1976-1981

In 1976, the NFL expanded for the first time post-merger, adding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks. For the 1976 season, Tampa Bay was placed in the AFC and nominally designated as a member of the AFC West. Seattle was placed in the NFC as a member of the NFC West. However, like previous versions of NFL expansion teams, Tampa Bay and Seattle did not play a true division schedule. Instead, each played the other 13 members of their conference once, and they played each other for the 14th game. The two expansion teams combined to go 1-25 in 1976 against the veteran members of the league.

The remainder of the league continued to play the same schedule format that had been used since 1970, except that the new conference game against Tampa Bay or Seattle replaced one of the three intra-conference matchups. In 1977, Seattle moved to the AFC West and Tampa Bay moved to the NFC Central. However, the schedule used for each was the same.

The league continued to use the same playoff format that had begun in 1975, with three division winners and one wildcard, and the seeding for the playoffs determined by record among division winners.

However, by 1978, it was necessary that the league incorporate the two expansion teams into their respective division schedules on a permanent basis. The solution was the modern 16 game schedule. The league introduced unique schedules for the fifth place division finishers to accomplish the change. The basic schedule structure called for home and away division games, four conference matchups based on previous year's finish within a division, and four intra-conference games based on pairing up divisions from each conference on a rotating basis. The four-team divisions made up the two game shortfall in division play by playing both of the fifth place finishers within the conference. The fifth place finishers played their division opponents (8 games), all of the teams from the four team division within their conference (4 games), each of the fifth place finishers from the opposite conference once (2 games), and the other fifth place finisher from the same conference in a home and away series (2 games).

The top four finishers in each division played an inter-conference schedule based on previous year's finish. The teams that finished 1st and 4th in a division played the other 1st and 4th place finishers in the other two divisions in inter-conference play. The 2nd and 3rd place finishers played each other. For intra-conference play, the top 4 finishers from a division would play one of the three divisions from the other conference each year, on a rotating basis. In 1978, the AFC East played the NFC East, and the Central teams played the West teams across each conference. In 1979, the AFC West and NFC West met, with the East and Central playing each other. In 1980, it was the AFC Central versus the NFC Central, with the East versus West divisions. The rotation began again in 1981, and would continue the same pattern until 2002.

The league also expanded the playoffs to include a second wildcard. The two wildcard teams (the two best non-division winners, regardless of division affiliation) would meet in the wildcard round. The winner advanced to the divisional round, to face the highest seeded team that was not a member of its same division. (The league maintained its previous rule against division opponents meeting until the championship game). The third-best (lowest seeded) division winner played at the remaining division winner in the other semifinal. The league determined playoff seeding based on record among divisional winners, with the best record getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Labor Disputes and Teams on the Move: 1982-1989

The Raiders moved from Oakland to Los Angeles prior to the 1982 season. It was the first relocation of an existing franchise since the Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City prior to the 1963 season, and the first relocation by a NFL member team since the Cardinals moved from Chicago to Saint Louis prior to the 1960 season.

Before the Raiders could actually play a home game in Los Angeles, however, the players went on strike following the week 2 games of September 19, 1982. Ultimately, the league lost seven weeks of games due to the player's strike. The league finished out the remaining seven weeks without adjusting the schedule, so in essence, the league played the same schedule format as the previous years, but with weeks 3-9 missing. As a result, teams played wildly diverse schedules, with some teams playing almost all of their games against division opponents, while others played very few division games. The league altered the playoff format for the 1982 season as a result. The league did away with the division designations for the 1982 playoffs, and the top eight teams from each conference advanced to play in a sixteen team tournament, with seeding determined by regular season record.

The league returned to its normal schedule, and playoff format, for the 1983 season. The Colts moved to Indianapolis for the 1984 season, a year after the team had traded first overall selection John Elway to the Broncos because he refused to play for the Colts.

Another player's strike occurred in 1987, again following week 2 games. The league cancelled the week 3 games, and played the next three weeks with replacement players until the labor dispute was resolved. As a result, the league ended up playing a fifteen game schedule in 1987, three of which were played by primarily replacement players and bore little resemblance to the normal roster. Nevertheless, these "replacement games" were included in the official standings and determined who made the playoffs and who did not. For example, the Minnesota Vikings finished the season at 8-7, but with regulars going 8-4 and the replacement players going 0-3. Fortunately for Minnesota, that discrepancy did not cost them a playoff spot, and the regular players went on the road and won at both New Orleans and San Fransisco to advance to the NFC championship game.

For the 1988 season, the league adjusted its formula for scheduling inter-conference games. The new formula called for the first place finisher to play a more weighted schedule than previously. Here is a quick chart summary of the new matchups beginning in 1988:

1st place finisher: played 1st and 2nd in one division, 1st and 3rd in the other
2nd place finisher: played 2nd and 4th in one division, 1st and 2nd in the other
3rd place finisher: played 1st and 3rd in one division, 3rd and 4th in the other
4th place finisher: played 3rd and 4th in one division, 2nd and 4th in the other

The fifth place teams continued to play the same schedule format.

The Cardinals became the third team to relocate in the 1980's, moving to Phoenix before the 1988 season, after spending 28 years in Saint Louis.

Playoff Expansion, Team Expansion, and More Relocations: 1990-2001

The NFL expanded the playoffs for the 1990 season, adding a sixth team in each conference. As a result, the worst division winner in each conference (#3 seed) hosted the third wildcard in the wildcard round. As a result, the league also did away with the rule prohibiting two division opponents from meeting in the playoffs prior to the championship game. The league also adopted a rule that the #1 seed in each conference would play the worst-seeded team that advanced out of the wildcard round (so that if the #6 seed won, it would play at the #1 seed, but if the #3 seed won, it would play at the #2 seed).

Other than these changes to the playoffs, the league's scheduling and composition remained the same as had been in place since the 1988 season.

In 1995, the league expanded for the first time since the Buccaneers and Seahawks had joined the league in 1976, with the addition of the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Rather than moving the Phoenix Cardinals to the NFC West, the league kept the existing structure and placed the Carolina Panthers in the NFC West. The Jacksonville Jaguars were placed in the AFC Central. In addition, the Rams left Los Angeles after almost fifty years, and moved to Saint Louis. The net result of these changes was that the NFC division alignments were even more geographically challenged than ever, as both the NFC West and East consisted of three members from the Eastern Time Zone, one member from the Central, and one member in the Pacific/Mountain Time Zones.

As a result of the expansion to thirty teams organized in six divisions of five teams each, the league altered its scheduling format again. The intra-conference matchups continued to rotate on a three-year cycle, but now, all five teams in a division would play four intra-conference games, thus avoiding one of the five members of the other conference. The first place finishers did not play the fifth place finishers; the second place finishers did not play the fourth place finishers; and the third place finishers from each conference did not play each other.

The league also tweaked its inter-conference scheduling slightly from what had been adopted in 1988. The new format was as follows:

1st place finisher: played 1st and 2nd in one division, 1st and 3rd in the other
2nd place finisher: played 2nd and 4th in one division, 1st and 2nd in the other
3rd place finisher: played 1st and 3rd in one division, 3rd and 5th in the other
4th place finisher: played 4th and 5th in one division, 2nd and 4th in the other
5th place finisher: played 3rd and 5th in one division, 4th and 5th in the other

Carolina and Jacksonville played the fifth place schedule for their respective divisions during their inaugural campaigns. The league played under this basic scheduling format until 1999. However, the trend of teams moving locations continued en force in the mid-1990's. Prior to the 1997 season, the Raiders left Los Angeles and moved back to Oakland, which, coupled with the Rams' departure a year earlier, left Los Angeles without a NFL team for the first time since 1945. Also, the team that had replaced the Rams in Cleveland in 1946, the Browns, moved to Baltimore. Officially, the Baltimore Ravens, owned by Art Modell, were designated as a new franchise and the Cleveland Browns name was preserved to the City of Cleveland(and a new expansion franchise would be granted three years later).

Prior to the 1997 season, the Oilers left Houston and moved to Tennessee. The team played the 1997 season in the city of Memphis, before moving to Nashville for the 1998 season. The team played as the Tennessee Oilers for the 1997 and 1998 seasons, then changed its name to the Tennessee Titans in 1999.

In 1999, the league expanded to 31 teams, returning a new franchise to Cleveland. Officially, this version of the Cleveland Browns is a continuation of the 1946-1995 Cleveland Browns. The Browns were placed in the AFC Central, thus creating a six team division. This created unique scheduling difficulties in the AFC.

The members of the AFC Central played 10 division games, thus altering the amount of intra-conference and inter-conference games. The first and second place finishers from the AFC Central continued to play four games intra-conference, and only played the teams that finished in the same place in the AFC West and East (2 games). The third through sixth place finishers played only three intra-conference games, and three games against the AFC West and AFC East. As a result, the AFC West and AFC East played more inter-conference games against each other, creating an imbalanced conference setup, more similar to the situation from 1970-1977.

North, South, East and West: 2002-present

In 2002, the NFL added a 32nd member, the Houston Texans. The Texans were placed in the AFC, with the Seahawks agreeing to return to the NFC (where they had played in their inaugural season) to balance the membership. This addition also allowed the league to go to a uniform schedule again, and correct some of the geographical confusion that had arisen over the years as teams relocated and the league expanded. The league went to an eight division, four team per division format.

Some of the new divisions maintained old rivalries intact, as the NFC North (Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, and Minnesota), NFC East (Dallas, NY Giants, Philadelphia, and Washington), AFC West (Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego), and AFC East (Buffalo, Miami, New England, and NY Jets) continued rivalries that had been ongoing since prior to the AFL-NFL merger. The AFC North kept the northernmost members of the previous AFC Central together (Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh) Others corrected the geographical problems of the previous alignments, and created new divisions among teams that had previously not all been division rivals, including the NFC West (San Fransisco and Saint Louis, joined by Arizona and Seattle), the NFC South (Atlanta, Carolina, and New Orleans joined by Tampa Bay), and the AFC South (Jacksonville and Tennessee, joined by Indianapolis and Houston).

The current schedule format includes home and away division games (6 games), inter-conference matchups against all of the teams from one of the other divisions in the same conference, and against the same place finishers from the other two divisions (6 games), and intra-conference matchups against all the teams from one of the divisions from the other conference, on a rotating basis (4 games).

The rotation of intra-conference pairings is as follows:

2002: AFC West vs. NFC West, AFC North vs. NFC South, AFC South vs. NFC East, AFC East vs. NFC North
2003: AFC West vs. NFC North, AFC North vs. NFC West, AFC South vs. NFC South, AFC East vs. NFC East
2004: AFC West vs. NFC South, AFC North vs. NFC East, AFC South vs. NFC North, AFC East vs. NFC West
2005: AFC West vs. NFC East, AFC North vs. NFC North, AFC South vs. NFC West, AFC East vs. NFC South

The pattern then repeats starting in 2006.

For the inter-conference matchups between divisions, the following schedule is used to determine which divisions will face off each year:

2002: West versus East, North versus South
2003: West versus North, East versus South
2004: West versus South, North versus East

The pattern then repeats starting in 2005.

The playoff format was maintained as far as the number of teams qualifying in each conference. Because of the additional division, the top four seeds are now occupied by a division winner, so that the top wildcard team no longer hosts a game in the wildcard round, as had been the case from 1978 to 2001. Two teams now make the playoffs in each conference as a wildcard.


My goal in looking at this was to create a resource for those who want to do research on specific eras, to help them identify what those eras might be. I also wanted, out of curiousity, to quantify all of the changes that the league has made over the years. When looking back over all of this, it is clear that the NFL has been a league of change, constantly adapting to various external and internal situations. The NFL/APFA will play its eighty-ninth season in 2008. Over that time, numerous franchises have come and gone, and moved to different locations. The longest stretch the league has consisted of the same number of teams is only nineteen years (1976-1994). The longest stretch the league has had the exact same franchises all playing in the same cities consecutively is only seven years (1953-1959, 1988-1994). The most consecutive years the NFL teams have played the same uniform number of regular season games is twenty years (16 games, 1988-2007). The most consecutive years the league has played the same regular season schedule format is again seven years (1953-1959, 1988-1994).

When I look back at it, several seasons played prominently in getting the NFL to where it is in 2008 from a structural standpoint. Obviously, 1920, the inaugural season was important. 1933, when the league first introduced divisions and a championship game, ranks up there. The war years were important because the league survived and thrived in the years that followed. 1953 was in many ways the birth of the modern NFL, because all of the teams in existence then are still around today. 1966 was important for the creation of the Super Bowl, and 1970 for the merger. 1978 brought us the modern 16 game schedule, the introduction of the wildcard game to expand playoff popularity, and scheduling based on previous year's finish.

But if I were to pinpoint one year that was most important in getting the NFL where it is today, it would be 1960. Nine of the current league members trace their roots to that year, when no other year can claim more than two. The emergence of the AFL created competition that drove the NFL to explore new markets. By 1976, a league that had been primarily based in the upper Midwest and Northeast less than twenty years earlier was spread from Seattle to Miami, and from San Diego to New England, and several points in between. Would the National Football League have 32 teams in 2008, and be the overwhelmingly most popular sport in the country, if some young wealthy owners hadn't decide to challenge the established league in 1960? I doubt it. The AFL was the shock to the system that forced the NFL to adapt and improve. The NFL more than doubled in size from 1959 to 1970, and that would not have happened if the NFL and AFL had not gone toe to toe beginning in 1960.