The National Football League playoffs are a single-elimination tournament held after the end of the National Football League (NFL) regular season to determine the NFL champion. Six teams from each of the league’s two conferences qualify for the NFL playoffs based on regular season records, and a tie-breaking procedure exists in the case of equal records. The tournament ends with the Super Bowl, the league’s championship game, which matches the two conference champions.
NFL postseason history can be traced to the first NFL Championship Game in 1933, though in the early years, qualification for the game was based solely on regular season records. From 1933 to 1966, the NFL postseason generally only consisted of the NFL Championship Game, pitting the league’s two division winners (pending any one-game playoff matches that needed to be held to break ties in the division standings). The NFL playoffs then expanded in 1967, when four teams qualified for the tournament. When the league merged with the American Football League (AFL) in 1970, the playoffs expanded to eight teams. The playoffs were expanded to 10 teams in 1978 and 12 teams since 1990.
The NFL is the only one out of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States to use a single-elimination tournament in all four rounds of its playoffs; Major League Baseball (MLB) (not including their wild-card postseason round), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the National Hockey League (NHL) all use a “best-of” format instead.
Current NFL playoff picture
The 32-team league is divided into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC), each of which has 16 teams. Since 2002, each conference has been further divided into four divisions of four teams each. The tournament brackets are made up of six teams from each of the league’s two conferences, following the end of the regular season. Qualification into the playoffs works as follows:
The 4 division champions from each conference (the team in each division with the best overall record), which are seeded 1 through 4 based on their overall won-lost-tied record.
Two wild-card qualifiers from each conference (the two teams with the best overall records of all remaining teams in the conference), which are seeded 5 and 6.
The names of the first two playoff rounds date back to the postseason format that was first used in 1978, when the league added a second wild-card team to each conference. The first round of the playoffs is dubbed the wild-card playoffs (or wild-card weekend). In this round, the third-seeded division winner hosts the sixth seed wild card, and the fourth seed hosts the fifth. There are no restrictions regarding teams from the same division matching up in any round. The 1 and 2 seeds from each conference receive a bye in the first round, which entitles these teams to automatic advancement to the second round, the divisional playoffs, where they face the wild-card weekend survivors. The NFL does not use a fixed bracket playoff system. The number 1 seed will host the worst surviving seed from the first round (seed 4, 5 or 6), while the number 2 seed will play the other team (seed 3, 4 or 5). The two surviving teams from each conference’s divisional playoff games then meet in the respective AFC and NFC Conference Championship games (hosted by the higher seed), with the winners of those contests going on to face one another in the Super Bowl. Only twice since 1990 has neither a number one-seeded team nor a number two-seeded team hosted a conference championship game (in the 2006 AFC Championship the #3 seeded Indianapolis Colts hosted the #4 seeded New England Patriots with the Colts winning 38–34 and the 2008 NFC Championship the #4 seeded Arizona Cardinals hosting the #6 seeded Philadelphia Eagles with the Cardinals winning 32–25).
If teams are tied (having the same regular season won-lost-tied record), the playoff seeding is determined by a set of tie-breaking rules.
One potential disadvantage is that the two teams with the best records in a conference could play each other before the conference championship if they are in the same division. The better team would be seeded #1, while the lesser team would be seeded #5 as the top wild-card team, and as shown in the diagram, it is possible for the #1 division winner to play the top wild-card team in the divisional round. (See also the “Modification proposals” section below.)
The New York Giants and New York Jets have shared the same home stadium since 1984 (first Giants Stadium from 1984 to 2009, and MetLife Stadium since 2010). Thus, if both teams need to host playoff games on the same weekend, they are always required to play on separate days, even during the Conference Championship round. The only time such a scheduling conflict has occurred was during wild-card weekend in 1985, when only 10 teams qualified for the postseason and there were only two wild-card games (See the “History” section below): Instead of playing both wild-card games on the same day, as was the case when the 10-team system was used from 1978 to 1989, the New England Patriots defeated the Jets, 26–14, on Saturday, December 28, before the Giants beat the San Francisco 49ers, 17–3, on the following day.