Football NFL Playoff Rules

nfl playoff rules

The NFL postseason is a benchmark every team wishes to reach. There are two conferences in the NFL, the American and National Football Conferences (AFC and NFC respectively). Each conference contains 16 teams, of which seven can make the playoffs from each conference. The two conferences are split into four divisions each.

Once the regular season is over and the teams' records are set, the best teams in each conference compete in the playoffs to make it to the Super Bowl. Playoffs kick off in January and end with Super Bowl Sunday in early February.

Who Makes the Playoffs?

Whichever teams finish with the best regular season win-loss record in their respective division automatically qualify for the playoffs. In addition, there are three spots in each conference known as the "Wild Card" spots. These three spots are filled by the three teams with the best record that did not win their divisions. The division the team plays in does not have any effect on whether the team can qualify for the wild card.

Divisional Tiebreakers

If two teams or more are tied for first place within a division, there is a certain ranking of tiebreakers that the NFL uses to determine the winner. The first metric used is head to head record between the clubs. This means that whichever team has the best record in games played against each other wins.

If a winner is still unable to be determined, they will then look at each team's record in games played within the division. Again, the team with the best record in this category will win the division.

If again there is no clear winner, the next step is to look at games against teams that every team involved in the tiebreaker played. For example, if every team involved played the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons that year, the team with the best record in those games would win the division.

The next step would be to look at each team's record within the conference, with the team with the better record taking home the division crown. While there are eight other tiebreakers (12 total) that could be used, most cases are resolved by using one of those listed above. In order to eventually decide a guaranteed winner, the final tiebreaker is a coin flip.

Wild Card Tiebreakers

Just like within a division, when two teams are tied for a wild card spot, there is a chain of methods the league has in place to determine who receives the spot. The first metric used for breaking a tie for wild card seeding is the two teams' record against one another, with whichever team holds the superior record earning the spot.

If this method is inconclusive, the next measure would be to compare each team's win-loss record within their own conference. In this scenario, the team with the best in-conference record earns the spot.

Third on the chain of tie breakers is the win-loss record of each team against shared opponents. This means that, out of all the franchises that both teams played against in that season, the team with the better record against those franchises is given the playoff slot.

The fourth method is strength of victory, and the fifth is strength of schedule. From there, the NFL has a flurry of other methods that can be used to decide a tie, but realistically a scenario where these further tie breakers would need to be used is highly unlikely.

Seeding and Gameplay

nfl playoff format

NFL playoff games are win or go home, so each team only has one chance to advance to the next round. The playoff teams, separated by conferences, get "seeded" one to seven. In other words, they get ranked one to seven based on their regular season record. The team that finishes first in their conference does not have to play during the first weekend of playoff games. This is called getting a "bye." The teams that end up being seeded second, third, and fourth are the remaining division winners. They play the seventh, sixth, and fifth-ranked Wild Card teams, respectively.

After those three games are played, the lowest-seeded team remaining will play the number one seed, while the other two remaining teams will play in what is known as the "Divisional Round."

The teams that survive the first two rounds in the playoffs will advance to play in the "Conference Championship" with the opportunity to make it to the championship game, known as the Super Bowl. Naturally, the NFC Champion and the AFC Champion are the teams that face each other at the Super Bowl.

Where and When Do Playoffs Happen?

The NFL playoffs start the weekend after the last regular season games are played. The NFL season usually ends around the first Sunday in January, so the playoffs officially start on the second weekend in January. Teams who win their games will move on each week until the Super Bowl, which is usually played on the first Sunday in February. Teams who make the Super Bowl are given an extra week of preparation instead of the normal one week preparation period throughout the season, making it a two week interval between the conference championships and the final game.

NFL playoff games are played at the stadium of the team with the higher seed. The Super Bowl is played at a different venue every year, making it a neutral location for both teams.

NFL Playoff Overtime

While during the regular season it is possible for a game to end in a tie despite the overtime, that is impossible during the playoffs. Teams in the NFL playoffs play only one game in order to move onto the next round, and a winner must be decided. With this in mind, the regular season and the playoffs have different rules for when a game ends regulation with a tied score.

In playoff overtime, the visiting team will be asked to call the coin toss. The winner of the coin toss will get to decide which endzone to defend or whether or not they want to receive the ball in the first overtime period. They can also choose to defer this choice to the next possible overtime. If an extra overtime period is needed, the loser of the first coin toss will get to choose one of these options, as long as the first coin toss was not deferred.

Scoring and Ties in Overtime

In overtime, whichever team gets the ball first will have a chance to win the game if they are able to score a touchdown on their first possession. If the other team scores a safety on the team that gets the ball first, then the other team will win the game. NFL overtime automatically ends if either team scores a touchdown. In the event that the first team to get the ball scores a field goal, the opposing team will have a chance to tie the game or win the game with a touchdown. Meanwhile, if the first team does not score, and the second team to get the ball scores a field goal, the game is over. If both teams are unable to score on their respective first possessions, then the game goes to sudden death, meaning that whichever team scores next (field goals included) will win the game and advance to the next playoff round.

Each team will have three timeouts to use each overtime period. NFL playoff games cannot end in ties, so if the game is still tied after the first overtime, teams will play a second one. They will keep playing overtime periods until a winner is decided. If there is still no winner after four overtime periods, there will be another coin toss to determine who defends and receives first. The game will resume until a winner is decided.

Coaches from both teams are not allowed to challenge any plays in overtime, so all replay reviews must come from the booth.


What were the new playoff rules implemented in 2021?

In 2020, the NFL announced that a third wild card team would be added to the playoffs, raising the number of teams that make the postseason to 14 (7 from each conference). This change created what is called the "Super Wild Card Weekend." While the exact format of this weekend is likely to change, there are currently two games on the first Saturday of the playoffs, three on Sunday, and one on the following Monday. This also means that only the first-place team from each conference will have a bye-week in the first round of the playoffs as opposed to two.

How does home field advantage work in the NFL playoffs?

In the NFL playoffs, teams with the superior seeding (the result of their regular season record) receive home field advantage. This means they earn the right to play their playoff games at their home stadium and in front of their fans. This can present a sizable advantage for teams, so home field advantage is highly sought after. However, the Super Bowl is played on a neutral field that is picked multiple seasons in advance. Although rare, it is possible to play on your own field, which happened in Super Bowl LV when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their matchup with the Chiefs in Tampa Bay.

How do NFL teams qualify for the playoffs?

NFL teams can earn a spot in the playoffs in one of two ways. First off, a team can win their division. This guarantees them a playoff spot regardless of their regular season record. Secondly, three additional teams can qualify for a wild card spot in each conference. To qualify as a wild card team, NFL squads must have one of the three best records in the conference excluding teams that won their division. This makes for a total of seven playoff teams per conference, and fourteen total playoff teams each year.