The NFL is currently made up of eight divisions that are equally split between the NFC and AFC. The current alignment was implemented prior to the 2002 season when the Houston Texans were added as the league’s 32nd team and allowed an equal distribution of teams between eight divisions. 
Prior to 2002, the NFL had three divisions per conference. But the odd number of teams meant the AFC had one six-team division. In addition, the geographic structure of the divisions wasn’t always logical such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers slotted into the NFC Central whose other four teams were all located in the upper midwest.
- The NFL has eight divisions, four each in the AFC and NFC. All have four teams.
- Each conference has the same four division names: North, South, East, and West.
- The current structure allows for relatively balanced scheduling with division opponents playing each other twice and similar out-of-division matchups.
How the Divisions Are Structured
Divisions are loosely organized by geography. Both conferences have a North, South, East, and West division with four teams in each. In most cases, teams that share divisions are located relatively close to each other to minimize travel time and maintain rivalries that have existed for several decades in some cases. The NFL has had the same divisional layout since 2002. 
This was a marked improvement over the previous divisional layout and was made possible by the addition of the Houston Texans as the 32nd franchise allowing for an equal number of teams spread across eight divisions.
Looking closely at the map, you can see it’s still not optimized. We’ll discuss why the Dallas Cowboys were kept in the NFC East below. But the most challenging aspect of laying out divisions is the imbalance in team locations between the eastern and western portions of the country. This left teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams at a disadvantage, having to make multiple flights each year to the west coast.
Some people have proposed a more logical geographic system similar to what the NBA does with a Western and Eastern Conference. 
But the NFL doesn’t seem keen on the idea, and there’s no indication that they’re interested in discussing potential realignments. One advantage the NFL has over the NBA is there is less travel overall.
Games are mostly played one day a week, leaving teams with plenty of time to fly longer distances for games without too much disruption. Contrast this with the NBA where teams are constantly moving from city to city and have a much longer regular season.
Since 2002, three teams have changed cities. The Raiders’ move from Oakland to Las Vegas, and the Chargers’ move from San Diego to Los Angeles had minimal change in how much they were required to travel. But the Rams’ move to Los Angeles in 2016 alleviated the NFC West’s travel issues and gives us the layout we enjoy in 2022.
The Layout Still Isn’t Perfect, But It’s Better Than it Was
The current division structure still leaves something to be desired. But it’s a marked improvement to the alignment prior to 2002.
As expansion teams entered the league and others changed cities, the NFL divisions became more and more confusing until by 2001 the NFC had become untenable.
Look at this nonsense! The East has Arizona and Dallas in it. Tampa Bay is stuck in the Central with four teams in the upper midwest. Although I’m sure the Packers loved the chance to go to Florida every year.
And the West may be the worst of all. We’ve got the eastern seaboard dwelling Carolina Panthers and deep south New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons crammed in here. The 49ers are the only team that can make a true case for being “west.”
We can quibble about the Dolphins still playing in the AFC East with three northeast teams, or point out that Indianapolis really doesn’t belong in the AFC South, but it’s much better than this goofy, geographic nightmare.
What Role Do Divisions Play in Scheduling?
With the same number of teams in each division and conference, teams that share a division can have a similar schedule. The addition of a 17th game in 2021 did complicate matters in some ways such as teams no longer playing an equal number of home and road games. 
In the current system, each team plays their divisional opponents twice, once at home and on the road. Eight games are played against two separate divisions. For example, the NFC North may play the AFC West and NFC South in a season. These eight games are equally divided between home and road games. 
Two more games are played against teams in other divisions, with the previous year’s ranking determining the opponent. If a team won its division the year prior, they’ll play two other teams that won their divisions. 
The new 17th game rotates between home and road every year by conference. The opponent is also determined by the previous year’s record and will match up teams that had the same divisional ranking with #1 facing #1. 
Why are the Cowboys in the NFC East?
One big exception in the current division alignment is the Dallas Cowboys’ inclusion in the NFC East. Not only is Dallas in the central time zone, but the other three teams in their conference (New York, Washington, and Philadelphia) are in the northeastern portion of the country.
The Cowboys moved to the NFC East in 1970 after being in the now-defunct Capitol Division from 1967 to 1969. 
Their move to the NFC East was precipitated by the NFL’s decision to split the then-26-team league into two conferences.
Like today, the new NFC had plenty of teams in the eastern part of the United States and only a few in the west. The Cowboys had played in the same division as Washington and Philadelphia since 1961, and the shortage of teams in the west led to Dallas staying with their division rivals. 
As the years have gone on, the rivalries between the four teams have only grown. With every realignment, NFL owners have been reluctant to move to Dallas to a more appropriate geographic division as the monetary and historical value of these rivalries have always outweighed the more logical outcome.