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Everything To Know About NFL Kickoff & The Schedule Makers

Have you ever wondered how the NFL’s masterminds in charge of making up the league’s season schedule create the perfect schedule each season? How it is decided on which team will kickoff at what time? It’s a fascinating process that involves a team of six league executives who tackle the monumental task of crafting a 272-game schedule across 18 action-packed weeks. While we still have a few weeks to wait for the 2024 NFL schedule to be released there are plenty of football events that every NFL fan should be tracking.

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Everything To Know About NFL Kickoff & The Schedule Makers
NFL fans and schedule makers hope to see Aaron Rodgers play a full season for the Jets this year.

Inside the NFL Schedule Room Factors That Shape the Season

The next time you’re placing your bets on the upcoming NFL season, take a moment to appreciate the incredible work that goes on behind the scenes to create the ultimate football experience.

Led by VP of Broadcasting Michael North, these unsung heroes have to juggle countless factors, from pleasing fans and broadcast partners to navigating around stadium events and ensuring every team gets a fair shake. It’s a delicate balancing act that requires months of preparation and thousands of computer simulations to get just right.

So, how does the schedule get created each season?

 

When Does The Upcoming NFL Season Kickoff?

The season is scheduled to begin the Kickoff Game on Thursday, September 5, 2024, expected to be hosted by the defending Super Bowl LVIII champion Kansas City. Currently no opponent has been announced. Thursday night NFL kickoff is at 8:20 PM ET on Amazon Prime.

 

Everything You Wanted To Know About The NFL Kickoff And New Kickoff Rule

In the NFL, a kickoff is the play that starts each half of the game and resumes play after a score. This season the NFL kickoff is about to undergo monumental changes. In a game-changing move, league owners have officially voted to adopt a brand-new kickoff format, one that promises to revolutionize the way the game is played.

The customary kickoff, to which we have acclimated, is no more—the system, inspired by the XFL, is set to drastically alter the NFL. Under the new format, the ball will still be kicked from the kicking team’s 35-yard line, however, every player on the kicking team, except for the kicker, will now align with at least one foot on the returning team’s 40-yard line. No less than nine members of the returning team will line up in a “setup zone” starting five yards in the opposite direction on their own 35-yard line (a minimum of seven players must have a foot on what is known as the “restraining line”) spanning to their own 30-yard line, with up to two returners in the “landing zone” (defined as the zone between the goal line and the 20-yard line).

No players other than the kicker and the returners can move until the ball is fielded by a returner. Any kick that is caught or lands in the end zone must be returned, while any kick that falls short of the landing zone will be ruled a touchback and spotted at the returning team’s 40-yard line. If a kick enters the landing zone and subsequently goes into the end zone, it must be returned or downed by the receiving team. If it’s downed, it will be ruled a touchback and go to the 20-yard line. If the ball hits the end zone and remains inbounds, it must be returned or downed—if it’s downed, it is a touchback and moved to the 30-yard line. Similarly, if the ball exits the end zone, it will be a touchback to the 30-yard line.

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NFL Schedule 101

The NFL schedule is a work of art, and it all starts with the league’s 32 teams being divided into two conferences: the AFC and NFC. Each conference has 16 teams, which are then split into four divisions: East, North, South, and West. Still with me? Good!

Now, every team plays 17 regular-season games, with one bye week to catch their breath. But how do they decide who plays who? Which NFL game will kickoff at what time? It’s all based on a rotating schedule that ensures each team faces off against every other team at least once every four years. It’s like a big, beautiful dance where everyone gets a turn to get down!

Each team will have six games against their division rivals (three at home, three away), four games each against a division from their own conference and a division from the other conference, and three games against teams that finished in the same spot in their divisions the previous year.

As a cherry on top for the season, the 17th game is a bonus matchup against a non-conference team from a division not on the regular schedule. It’s the perfect way to add a little extra spice to the season.

While next year’s opponents are known right after the regular season wraps up in January, even if the new season doesn’t start until September, the league usually busts out its full schedule come spring time. Before the release of the full slate of games, the NFL also announces several games, mostly the International Series matchups before releasing the full schedule.

 

What Time is Kickoff? How Game Time & Broadcasting Rights Affect the NFL Schedule

Now that we covered the basics of how the schedule works, let’s talk about NFL kickoff times and which broadcasting networks get the best games each week. Since 2012, the NFL has been using five main time slots. Thursday night starts things off at 8:20 PM (ET), followed by a slew of Sunday games. Most of those kick off at 1 PM (ET), with some late afternoon action at 4:05 or 4:25 PM (ET).

And then there’s Sunday and Monday night, where the league dishes out two prime-time showdowns at 8:20 PM (ET) on Sundays and either one or two games at 8:15 PM (ET) on Mondays. Besides that, there are the traditional Thanksgiving Day triple-header games, and a game that debuted in the 2023 season, the Black Friday afternoon game.

So, who’s showing all these games? It’s a mix of CBS, Fox, NBC, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, and ABC. CBS and Fox split the Sunday afternoon games based on the teams’ conferences, with some crossover when AFC and NFC teams face off. NBC gets the NFL Kickoff Game and the Thanksgiving night game, while Amazon Prime Video snags the Thursday night and Black Friday games. Sunday night belongs to NBC, and Monday night is ESPN/ABC’s turf.

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How Does Flex Scheduling Affect NFL Kickoff Times?

Now, let’s touch up on the NFL’s secret weapon for keeping you glued to your screens: flex scheduling. This nifty little tool allows the league to swap out a prime-time game for a juicier matchup, ensuring that you’re always watching the best of the best.

It all started back in 2006 when the NFL introduced flex scheduling for “Sunday Night Football.” The goal? To make sure that the most important games were always in the spotlight. And now, they’ve taken it up a notch by expanding flex scheduling to “Thursday Night Football” and “Monday Night Football” too!

But hold on, it’s not like the NFL can just flip a switch and change the schedule willy-nilly. There are rules in place to keep things fair and give teams enough notice before a change is made. That’s why you don’t see games getting flexed left and right every week.

For “Thursday Night Football,” the NFL has to make a call at least 28 days before the game. “Sunday Night Football” is where the real magic happens, though. Between Weeks 5-14, they can flex up to three games into that prime-time slot. And from Weeks 15-17, the gloves come off, and the NFL can flex games as they please.

Oh, and get this: the NFL doesn’t even schedule a “Sunday Night Football” game for Week 18. Instead, they flex in the most important game of the week to close out the regular season with a bang.

As for “Monday Night Football,” the NFL can flex games into that slot between Weeks 12-17, giving them plenty of chances to showcase the hottest matchups.

And let’s not forget about those sneaky Sunday afternoon games. The NFL can shuffle them around from 1 p.m. ET to 4 or 4:25 p.m. ET, especially in Week 18, to make sure no team gets eliminated from playoff contention before they even take the field.

 

NFL Kickoff Times For International Games

Did you know that the league has been staging regular season games outside the U.S. since 2005? That’s right, it all started with the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers battling it out in Mexico City.

Fast forward to 2006, and NFL club owners gave the green light to host up to two international games per season, kicking off in 2007. The New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins had the honor of playing the first London game at the iconic Wembley Stadium. Since then, we’ve seen teams like the LA Chargers, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all take their talents across the pond.

The original plan was to have a sweet 16-year rotation, giving each team a chance to play as the home and away team. But the former St. Louis, now LA Rams threw a wrench in that plan when they signed a three-year deal to be the home team in London. Don’t worry, though; the rotation is back on track now.

Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars made London their second home for some time, committing to playing one home game a season at Wembley until 2020. And let’s not forget about the record-breaking three London games in 2014, featuring the Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Las Vegas Raiders, and Miami Dolphins.

But it’s not just about London. The Buffalo Bills had their own international series, playing one regular season game a year in Toronto from 2008 to 2013. Unfortunately, poor ticket sales and the loss of their owner put an end to that.

Starting from the 2022 season and moving forward, every team will get a chance to host an international game at least once every eight years. It’s a big challenge for the schedule makers, who have to juggle these matchups and make sure the teams aren’t too jet-lagged. They look at a three-week window around the international games, considering where teams play the week before and whether they get a bye week after.

It’s all part of the NFL’s grand plan to take the game global and give fans around the world a taste of the action.

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