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How the NFL schedule is made; A first look at the Lions' 2017-2019 schedule

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The NFL has a systematic process for determining each team's opponents every season.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Though the official 2016 season schedule was released on Thursday night, the Lions already knew the key components before an announcement was even made. Thanks to a systematic method of determining opponents and game locations, the only mysteries to be revealed were the dates and kickoff times. The NFL introduced this systematic method in 2002 -- the last time the division structure was changed -- and has been using it ever since.

Schedule Breakdown

Each team plays 16 games, eight at home and eight on the road. In general, each team’s schedule has the same structure, divided into four groupings:

Six games against their own division (three home, three away)

Four games against another division in their conference (two home, two away)

Four games against a division in the other conference (two home, two away)

Two games against remaining teams in their conference (one home, one away)

Keeping this outline in mind, take a look at the Lions’ 2016 schedule. Six of the games are very familiar: home and away battles against NFC North foes ChicagoGreen Bay, and Minnesota. Four games come against the NFC East: home matchups with Philadelphia and Washington and away games in Dallas and New York. Four more games are against AFC South opponents: Jacksonville and Tennessee at home, Houston and Indianapolis on the road.

The remaining two games are against Los Angeles at home and New Orleans on the road. The reasoning behind the Rams and Saints filling out the schedule is fairly straightforward: the Lions finished third in the NFC North in 2015, while the Rams and Saints finished third in the NFC West and NFC South, respectively. The third place team in the NFC East, the Giants, is already on the schedule.

The divisional assignments follow a predetermined cycle that began in 2002. For those curious about the raw details, here are the rotations for the Lions:

NFC Opponents (six-year cycle):

2011: all of NFC South, one NFC West team (home), one NFC East team (away)

2012: all of NFC West, one NFC South team (home), one NFC East team (away)

2013: all of NFC East, one NFC South team (home), one NFC West team (away)

2014: all of NFC South, one NFC East team (home), one NFC West team (away)

2015: all of NFC West, one NFC East team (home), one NFC South team (away)

2016: all of NFC East, one NFC West team (home), one NFC South team (away)

AFC Opponents (four-year cycle):

2013: all of AFC North

2014: all of AFC East

2015: all of AFC West

2016: all of AFC South

The home and away locations for the games typically follow these cycles, alternating from one cycle to the next. If the Lions play an NFC team at home in a given season, they can expect to face them on the road next time in three years. The exception to this are the two "extra" intra-conference games against the teams who finished at the same place in their own divisions, which follow the set home/away cycle as seen above.

Future Opponents

With knowledge of these patterns, fourteen of the sixteen games for any given season are known in advance. For example, though it is over a year away, the Lions already know that in the 2017 season they will face off against the NFC South and the AFC North teams, in addition to the six games against their NFC North rivals. Below are the Lions’ divisional assignments for the next few seasons:

2017

Home: NFC North (all), NFC South (ATL, CAR), AFC North (CLE, PIT), NFC West (TBD)

Away: NFC North (all), NFC South (NO, TB), AFC North (BAL, CIN), NFC East (TBD)

2018

Home: NFC North (all), NFC West (LA, SEA), AFC East (NE, NYJ), NFC South (TBD)

Away: NFC North (all), NFC West (ARI, SF), AFC East (BUF, MIA), NFC East (TBD)

2019

Home: NFC North (all), NFC East (DAL, NYG), AFC West (KC, SD), NFC South (TBD)

Away: NFC North (all), NFC East (PHI, WAS), AFC West (DEN, OAK), NFC West (TBD)