NFL Playoff Format

nfl playoff format

The NFL playoffs is one of the most anticipated times of the year for many sports fans around the world. 

If they are lucky enough to see their favorite team reach the playoffs, their team will compete against some of the best teams in the league with the chance to reach the coveted Super Bowl.

The format of the NFL playoffs includes a bracket system similar to March Madness for NCAA basketball, but has a few wrinkles that differentiate it. For the upcoming season, the league changed the playoff format for the first time since 2002.

Teams in the Playoffs

Differing from past years, a total of 14 NFL teams now make the playoffs: seven teams from the American Football Conference (AFC) and seven teams from the National Football Conference (NFC) earn a spot. Within each conference, there are four different divisions. In the AFC there is the AFC North, South, East, and West. Similarly, in the NFC there is the NFC North, South, East, and West. The best team from each of the divisions makes the playoffs. Based on regular season record, the four teams from each conference (AFC and NFC) are seeded from 1 to 4. The two teams that earn the number one seed from each conference earn a first round bye, meaning they don’t have to play in the first round of the playoffs, along with home field advantage for their second round game.

In addition to the four best teams from each conference, the next three best teams within the conference also earn a spot in the first round of the playoffs. These teams are known as wildcard teams and there are a total of six of them that qualify to play in the postseason.

Wild Card Round

The first round of the playoffs is known as the Wild Card round. During this round, the six wild card teams face the six other teams that did not rank number one in their respective conferences. The wild card teams from each conference receive a seed of 5, 6, or 7. Within each conference, the 7 seed faces the 2 seed, the 6 seed plays the 3 seed, and the 5 seed plays the 4 seed. These three games take place for both AFC and NFC conferences for a total of six wild card games to begin the playoffs.

Divisional Round

Following the wild card round of the playoffs, the winners of each of the six games will move on to the divisional round of the playoffs. Unlike a traditional bracket, the NFL playoff bracket can be rearranged. The number 1 seeded team from each conference will always play the remaining team with the lowest seed. Therefore, if the number 7 seed upsets the 2 seed, the number 1 seed will face the 7 seed in the divisional round. Furthermore, the winner of the #4 vs #5 seed game and the winner of the #3 vs #6 seed game would play one another.

Compared to the top two teams receiving first round byes in past years, only the number 1 seeded team from each conference does not have to play in the wild card round of the playoffs. This gives them the advantage of having an additional week to rest and prepare for the divisional round game. There are a total of four divisional round playoff games with two games in each conference.

Conference Championships

After the divisional round playoff games comes the AFC and NFC championship games. In both conferences, the two winners of the divisional games advance to face one another in the conference championships. Therefore, there are a total of two conference championship games with only four teams remaining in the playoffs. The winner of the conference game will be the conference champion for the season.

The Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is a large stage in professional sports and is the league championship for the NFL. The two teams that are victorious in the AFC and NFC championship games advance to face one another in the Super Bowl. At the end of the Super Bowl, the winning team is awarded the Vince Lombardi Trophy and is named the Super Bowl Champion.

2020 Playoff Changes

After the 2019-2020 season, the NFL changed its playoff format for the first time in over 15 years. The new format expands the playoffs, allowing more teams to compete in the postseason. In addition, this adjustment modifies each round of the playoffs along with the seeding system.


How many teams make the playoffs in the new NFL playoff format?

Under the new NFL playoff format, a total of 14 teams will make the playoffs. This differs from the previous system where only 12 teams made it to the postseason. Therefore, seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs instead of six, providing one additional spot on each side of the bracket. Considering the 2019 NFL season, both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Rams would have earned a spot in the playoffs.

How many wild card games used to take place before the changed playoff format?

Under the old NFL playoff format, four wild card games were played instead of six. In each conference, two wild card round games took place between the wild card teams and the other lower seeded teams. In the wild card round, the number 3 seeded team faced the 6 seed while the number 4 seeded team faced the 5 seed. Both the number 1 and 2 seeded teams in each conference received a first round bye.

Why did the NFL change the playoff format?

One of the biggest reasons the NFL decided to change the playoff format was to increase their revenue. With two extra wild card games, the league can increase its viewership and also the amount of money it brings in. In addition to the NFL making more money, players can make money as well. With two additional spots, players have a greater chance of making the playoffs and have the opportunity to earn more money through playoff bonuses.

How does overtime work in the NFL playoffs?

The overtime rules for the NFL playoffs differ compared to the regular season. During regular season games, an overtime period lasts 10 minutes while in the playoffs it lasts for 15 minutes. In addition, a regular season game can end in a tie if the score is even at the end of the overtime period. However, a playoff game can not end in a tie and a second overtime period may be needed to determine which team will advance to the next round.