It takes the NFL schedule makers months to organize the 256 games into a working calendar. Four guys sit in a locked room (literally, Roger Goodell is the only other person allowed inside), sifting through thousands of possible schedule options that are spit out by a collection of up to 225 computers connected across the globe. They need that much power to compute the hundreds of trillions of schedule options that are possible.
Games are now played four days out of the week, with multiple time slots to fill each day, and countless other variables including bye weeks, strength of schedule, trips to London, primetime planning, etc. to be factored in. This can make the schedule makers' job tedious - trying to piece together the best season possible.
They don't want a team coming off a trip to London to have to play an away game the following week on a Thursday against the Patriots. They also don't want a team to be privy to four straight home games with a bye in the middle and against all non-playoff teams from a year ago.
The schedule makers said that there is always a perfect schedule, but it would take many more months to find it even with the amount of computing power they have, so they are content with their selection.
Realistically, the fans don't care about how the league capitalizes on their broadcasting times to entice advertising dollars. All they care about is what's happening on the field and perhaps what's happening in the fantasy realm.
Without those big advertising dollars floating around for the taking, the league probably wouldn't try as hard to build the perfect schedule, but they do and fans are just one of the beneficiaries.
The league is filled with parity these days, Any Given Sunday... but let's take a look at the best matchups slated for this season.
20 Panthers at Broncos - Week 1
The Denver Broncos will host the Carolina Panthers in a Super Bowl rematch to open the season.
The Broncos have yet to name who their starting quarterback will be this season, but they still have one of the leagues best defenses, and Peyton Manning wasn't anything special last season by any means, so they should still be a quality football team.
The Panthers should be returning with almost their entire roster intact, with the addition of Kelvin Benjamin who was lost in the preseason last year. This is a great matchup to start the season and should tell us a lot about the fate of the Broncos this year.
19 Patriots at Cardinals - Week 1
Week one will also feature a match up between the two Conference Championship losers.
The Cardinals had everything a Super Bowl team needed until late in the season, when they lost Tyrann Mathieu going into the playoffs. Mathieu was the X-Factor on that defense and enabled them to run many different blitz schemes and coverage packages. The offense is there, so this team should be right back where they were the year before.
The Patriots are the measuring-stick for teams every year. Another year of Brady and Belichick bullying defensive backs and linebackers. This first game for them should be a good barometer of what the Pats will be capable of this season.
18 Colts at Broncos - Week 2
The Colts, even though they made the playoffs last year, had a disappointing season, especially for Andrew Luck. He was banged up most of the year and it clearly affected his game on the field. They brought in vets instead of sticking with the blooming young talent that they have, and it hindered their performance.
If Luck can get back to early-career form, then the Colts should be title contenders again this season. The Broncos defense will be an excellent test for them early on in the year.
The Broncos still have question marks on the offensive side of the ball, so this game should help both clubs find their direction.
17 Packers at Vikings - Week 2
The Vikings have an intriguing young squad. Teddy Bridgewater has shown flashes of what he is capable of in the NFL - beyond a solid game-manager - and Adrian Peterson still appears to have some gas left in his 30 year-old tank. They have quality receivers on the outside and the Packers have been susceptible to getting scored on in the past.
The Packers, led by all-world talent Aaron Rodgers, will always be a test for young teams to deal with. Last season, they found zero success running the football and will need this season's slimmed down Eddie Lacy to do more with his touches.
This is a good divisional match that should give a glimpse into how the NFC North may shake out.
16 Falcons at Saints - Week 3
Another early season divisional match with potential post-season implications.
Both these teams missed the playoffs last year, but both are loaded with talent. The Saints' Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis will both be back off injury to help their laughable defense. Drew Brees will put points on the board, but the question is if their defense will be able to limit opposing offenses at all.
The Falcons have a stacked offense, but much like the Saints, their defense leaves a little to be desired. They have a defensive-minded coach in Dan Quinn, who did help them improve on that side of the ball last year. They will look get some momentum going early against their division rival.
15 Panthers at Saints - Week 6
Moving to the heart of the schedule, where dreaded bye weeks come into play.
The Panthers beat their division rival Saints twice last year. The first time 27-22 and the second time 41-38 in an absolute shootout in the bayou. New Orleans will want to wash the salty taste out of their mouth after last season and Carolina will want to prove the 38 points the Saints put up was a fluke.
The Saints will be coming off their bye week, so the Panthers will have their work cut-out for them playing on the road a week before their bye.
14 Cardinals at Panthers - Week 8
A week after the Panthers' bye they will host the Cardinals in an NFC Championship rematch.
The Cardinals got embarassed by the Panthers in the playoffs after a stellar season on both sides of the football last year. The Panthers defense dominated the Championship game, as they jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and rode the momentum to a 49-15 win and Super Bowl birth.
Arizona should have this game circled on their calendar, with vengeance in mind. Getting Tyrann Mathieu back on the field should make this game much more competitive than the punishment the Panthers put the Cards through previously.
13 Broncos at Raiders - Week 9
This up and coming Raiders team is exciting. They are a burgeoning force to be reckoned with in the league. Derek Carr and Amari Cooper both have All-Pro talent, Latavius Murray is multi-dimensional, and if they keep siphoning off ex-Seahawks linebackers, their defense will be just as nice as their offense.
Oakland is looking to take claim of the AFC West, and beating the defending Super Bowl champions at home on Primetime would be a giant step forward in that endeavour. The Broncos offense should have an identity by this time in the season, if not, the Raiders will handle them.
12 Steelers at Ravens - Week 9
The Steelers and Ravens have squared off 40 times in the regular season since 1996, with the Steelers leading the all-time series 21-19. Pittsburgh has scored 882 points against Baltimore and the Ravens have put up 844 points. These teams always play rough, and there is outward animosity between them on the field. Even Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh have "bad-blood" between each other.
Both teams play a similar style of football, as division rivals usually do, and they are both perennial playoff contenders, so this should be another classic Steelers-Ravens football game, especially with both teams coming off their bye weeks.
11 Bengals at Giants - Week 10
The following week, the Bengals and Giants play in Prime Time on Monday night. This could be a pivotal game for both of these franchises, as they are both in highly competitive divisions. The Giants are usually within one or two games in the hapless NFC East and the Bengals have made incredible improvements in the no-holds-barred AFC North.
The Bengals will be coming off their bye in this one, but that has not meant anything during the Marvin Lewis era. If Coach Lewis cannot keep his team disciplined this year, or win a playoff game (0-7 postseason record), he may finally be fired.
10 Seahawks at Patriots - Week 10
Also in Prime Time that same week, we get to see the Seahawks and Patriots go head to head on Sunday. These teams met in the Super Bowl two years ago and it's hard not to remember how that game ended - Malcolm Butler picking off Russell Wilson in the end zone on a forced throw.
Both of these teams are extremely well coached, so Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick will have their squads prepared for a physical chess match. The Seahawks are going to have to keep pace with the Cardinals in the division again this year, so every win counts, this one would be satiating for the 12th man.
9 Steelers at Colts - Week 12
The Steelers have beat down the Colts the last couple of years. Last season, with Matt Hasselbeck under center for the Colts, the Steelers walloped them 45-10. The year before that they beat them 51-34, but that game was actually even worse than the score indicates. Ben Roethlesberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns in that contest.
The Colts should finally be fully healthy this year and ready to establish an identity - something they struggled to do last season. Chuck Pagano needs to get this team rolling or Andrew Luck may find himself taking tutelage from somebody else sooner than later.
8 Bengals at Ravens - Week 12
While the Steelers face the Colts, the Bengals and Ravens will keep it in the division that same week. If the Colts can spoil the Steelers success, then Cincinnati or Baltimore will have an opportunity to pick up two games in the standings against their rivals. Even if the Ravens aren't as good as they have been in years past, Coach Harbaugh still knows how to motivate his teams, especially against rivals.
At this point in the season, teams could be anywhere, but if it's anything like the last few years, then every team in the AFC North has a shot at the postseason - except the Browns.
7 Cowboys at Vikings - Week 13
The Cowboys entire season depends on the health of their roster, as they were decimated by injuries a year ago. First they lost Tony Romo, but felt decent because they had a trio of running backs that were running well behind their dominating O-Line. Then two of those guys went down, so everything fell onto Darren McFadden's shoulders and the identity the Cowboys were searching for, vanished.
Now the Cowboys have Alfred Morris, who has proven he is capable of carrying a heavy workload when needed. This is a very intriguing match at this point in the season, as the Vikings also have a promising future in their sights.
6 Panthers at Seahawks - Week 13
A divisional round rematch from a year ago. Weather in the Northwest starts getting a little bit nasty at this time of the year and it seems to affect the fans, because they start getting nasty too. The 12th Man will assuredly be in full effect on this occasion, they truly have enmity towards the arrogance of one Cameron Newton.
This is a heavyweight bout between some dogged defenses. These teams have played each other twice the last three seasons, so this is one of the few legitimate non-division rivalries in the league, and it is always entertaining.
5 Seahawks at Packers - Week 14
The following week, the Seahawks have to travel to another non-divisional opponent who they have run into a lot lately, the Packers. The league knows this has been a good series with some controversial calls the last few years. Matt Hasselbeck, "We'll take the ball and we're gonna score." The "Fail Mary" replacement ref fiasco. The fumble recovery confiscation a season ago. The league knows they have a good one here.
If the weather is nasty in Seattle this time of year, then it is downright disgusting in Green Bay. Randall Cobb will have his hoody on and he'll need to be on his game too.
4 Patriots at Broncos - Week 15
The Broncos and Patriots have developed a small rivalry of their own, but that was largely due to Peyton Manning bringing it over with him from the Colts. It is impossible to predict what the Broncos will do this year, as they are in a very awkward position for a franchise that just won the Super Bowl. They lose their Hall of Fame quarterback, they have question marks at running nack and O-Line, and they have to come up with enough money to pay their trio of linebackers.
The Patriots are the epitome of consistency, so this game's quality is contingent on the Broncos.
3 Cardinals at Seahawks - Week 16
We're predicting that this game will be for the division. The Seahawks dominated the NFC West for a couple of years, while holding off some very good Niners teams, and making two Super Bowls. Now Bruce Arians is in the division and he has made his mark already.
Arians has transformed the Cardinals into the most potent offense in the league - at times. The resurgence of Chris Johnson last year was remarkable considering Arians is known for his pass-heavy schemes and every runner for the Cardinals a year ago had success.
The Seahawks have Chris Clemons and Brandon Browner back this year, so Legion of Boom, assemble!
2 Giants at Eagles - Week 16
No team in the NFC East has won back-to-back division titles in 12 years. That was the Andy Reid - Donovan McNabb era. This Eagles team probably won't be any good, but who knows?! The more likely scenario is that they will be playing spoiler against the Giants.
The Redskins are ready to hand the reigns to Kirk Cousins and perhaps that consistency can help them to go back-to-back in the division.
The Cowboys are contingent on health.
Tom Coughlin has retired and Ben McAdoo is the Giants new coach. Odell Beckham Jr. is the kind of talent that can single handedly (pun intended) win them ball games this season.
1 Every Game Week 17
The NFL is all smiles when Week 17 hits, because almost every game is awesome.
For the last week of the season, it is impossible to pick one or two good games. The league does it right in this respect, as they prepare plenty of matchups with playoff implications. Any of these could potentially be for the playoffs or to spoil somebody else's hopes.
There is something for everybody in this year's schedule. The schedule makers were only content with what they released, but as long as they're striving for the perfect schedule, the fans will be happy.
"Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence." - Vince Lombardi
***Bonus Playoff Predictions
NFC:North- Minnesota VikingsEast- New York GiantsSouth- Carolina PanthersWest- Arizona CardinalsWildcard- Seattle SeahawksWildcard- Atlanta FalconsAFC:North- Pittsburgh SteelersEast- New England PatriotsSouth- Indianapolis ColtsWest- Oakland RaidersWildcard- Cincinnati BengalsWildcard- Buffalo Bills