Basically, think back to college (or high school, or even middle school for that matter). When the football team at your school played the regular season, they pretty much played the same local schools--sometimes several times. At the end of the season, if they did well, they advanced to the regional finals or something like that. And so on, and so on. This is basically how the NFL works.
A tad bit of history as to how this all came to be....
The NFL (National Football League) was founded in 1922. The sport really gained popularity and took off in 1925. In 1933, the NFL split into two divisions: the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. (Ok, so it was East vs. West. Got it?)
Then in 1960, another division called the American Football League (AFL) was formed. The AFL and the NFL now competed against each other. Ok. No more East vs. West (that would be too easy). Now fast forward to 1970 when the two leagues merge into one league--keeping the name "NFL" and essentially dividing into 2 conferences. So now, the NFL consists of the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC).
These conferences (NFC and AFC) are both split up into four divisions: North, South, East and West. This means there is an NFC North, NFC South, NFC East and NFC West as well as an AFC North, AFC South, AFC East and AFC West. There are four teams in each division. Do the math and you come up with....32 teams total!
So, now it's no longer really East vs. West or any sense-making model like that. It's kinda like McDonald's and Burger King. Both places are all over the country. During the playoffs all of the best McDonald's play each other and all of the best Burger King's play each other. The best McDonald's then plays the best Burger King to see who will win the title of best burger in the National Fast food League. You know what I mean.
Ok, I've put together a chart listing all of the different teams and where they are in regards to their division.
So why do we need to know all of this, you ask? Well, we learn a couple of things--first, we can see how seemingly unrelated cities have rivalries. For instance you may wonder why the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams have such a heated rivalry when they aren't even near each other? Well, they are both in the AFC West division. (To be fair, the Rams used to be in Los Angeles so it makes a little more sense.)
And second, we learn that this is not the "Football Olympics" meaning that the Superbowl will showcase the BEST two teams in the NFL for that season. It hopefully will, but the best team could have been knocked out a few rounds before. And say the two best teams happen to be in the AFC--then it's actually impossible for that rivalry to go down in the Superbowl. Allow me to explain.
The road to the Superbowl begins this way: The team with the BEST RECORD during the regular season advances to the PLAYOFFS. In other words, there are no "special" games to determine who's in and who's out--it's just who's played the best (enter all those pesky stats that we all hate). Now, because this isn't always the most fair (there could be two amazing, undefeated teams on the AFC West for instance and one mediocre team on the AFC East) each season, two WILD CARD teams are selected. They are the two teams who have the best record in the whole conference (AFC or NFC) behind the four teams already chosen. So, six teams from one conference move on to the playoffs. And with six teams on the other side, that makes 12 total teams in the playoffs.
The playoffs are "sudden death" (kinda like college basketball's "March Madness") meaning once you lose, you are out of the running. So now you know why you always hear things like, "This Superbowl will be so lame...the best game already happened in week 2 of the playoffs."
This is when I stopped looking at football as the "Olympics of football" and started to see it for what it really is--unabashed capitalism at its finest! There's nothing really wrong with this, of course. I guess it just kind of ruined the illusion for me. When I actually started looking in to it and thinking, "Well, who decides who will play who? and where will the home games be? and how come some teams play each other 3 times a season and some not at all? where is the fairness in that?" (Yes, I tend to question in run-on sentences) I came to some startling "Chick" conclusions. They are presented below:
1. If a team has lots and lots of money, it can buy the best players.
2. To be fair, a "draft" system is used.
3. The owner of a team can really be any schmo who has millions and millions of dollars and wants the ultimate ego boost and supreme control over his own group of mega-athletes. They will be the team of his dreams--his fantasies. His.........own.........................wait.................................. fantasy football team???
Did I just come to the conclusion that the NFL is actually not much more than ONE BIG GIANT HIGH-STAKES GAME OF FANTASY FOOTBALL?????
Only instead of barbies, these are real people and you use real money?????
Yes, I think I did. And now, it's really a soap opera.
Oh, and PS- if you really want to know how games are scheduled, I found this for you:
Quoted from CBS Sportsline press release May 2001
"...the new scheduling format, under which every team will meet every other at least once in four years. There will be six home-and-home divisional games; four against teams in another division within a conference; and four more against a division in the other conference on a rotating basis. The final two games will be against conference teams based on the previous year's standings--first against first, second against second, and so on."
And yes, I'm sorry I asked too. Until next time!