The National Football League (NFL) playoffs are a single-elimination tournament held at the end of the 16-game regular season to determine the NFL champion. Six teams from each of the league's two conferences qualify for the playoffs based on regular season records, and a tie-breaking procedure exists in the case of equal records. It ends with the Super Bowl, the league's championship game, which matches the two conference champions.
NFL post-season 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. The first true NFL playoff began in 1967, when four teams qualified for the tournament. When the league merged with the American Football League in 1970, the playoffs expanded to eight teams. The playoffs were expanded to ten teams in 1978 and twelve teams in 1990.
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 4 divisions of 4 teams each. The tournament brackets are made up of six teams from each of the league's two conferences, following the end of the 16-game regular season. Qualification into the playoffs are as follows:
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. 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. Unlike the NBA, the NFL does not use predetermined brackets. In the second round of the playoffs, the top seed always hosts the lowest surviving seed, while the other two teams pair off. The two surviving teams from each conference's Divisional Playoff games meet in the respective AFC and NFC Conference Championship games, 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 (the 2006 AFC Championship and the 2008 NFC Championship).
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 one other before the conference championship if they're 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).
Often, teams will finish a season with identical records. It becomes necessary, therefore, to devise means to break these ties, either to determine which teams will qualify for the playoffs, or to determine seeding in the playoff tournament. The rules below are applied in order until the tie is broken. If three teams are tied for one playoff spot and the third team is eliminated at any step, the tie breaker reverts to step one for the remaining two teams. If multiple playoff spots are at stake, the rules are applied in order until the first team qualifies, then the process is started again for the remaining teams.
The tie-breaking rules have changed over the years, with the most changes being made in 2002 to accommodate the league's realignment into eight four-team divisions; record vs. common opponents and most of the other criteria involving wins and losses were moved up higher in the tie-breaking list, while those involving compiled stats such as points for and against were moved to the bottom.
The current tiebreakers are as follows:
|Divisional tiebreakers||Conference tiebreakers|
The NFL's method for determining its champions has changed over the years.
From the league's founding in 1920 until 1932, there was no scheduled championship game. From 1920–1923, the championship was awarded to a team by a vote of team owners at the annual owners' meeting. From 1924–1932, the team having the best winning percentage was awarded the championship. As each team played a different number of games, simply counting wins and losses would have been insufficient. Additionally, tie games were not counted in the standings in figuring winning percentage (under modern rules, ties count as ½ win and ½ loss).
In 1932, the Chicago Bears (6–1–6) and the Portsmouth Spartans (6–1–4) were tied at the end of the season with the identical winning percentage of .857 (The Green Bay Packers (10–3–1) had more wins, but a lower winning percentage (.769) as calculated under the rules of the day, which omitted ties). An additional game was therefore needed to determine a champion. It was agreed that the game would be played in Chicago at Wrigley Field, but severe winter weather and fear of a low turnout forced the game to be moved indoors to Chicago Stadium. The game was played under modified rules on a shortened 80-yard dirt field, and the Bears won with a final score of 9–0. As a result of the game, the Bears had the better winning percentage (.875) and won the league title. The loss gave the Spartans a final winning percentage of .750, and moved them to third place behind the Packers. While there is no consensus that this game was a real "championship" game (or even a playoff game), it generated considerable interest and lead to the creation of the official NFL Championship Game in 1933.
Given the interest of the impromptu "championship game", and the desire of the league to create a more equitable means of determining a champion, the league divided into two conferences beginning in 1933. There was no tie-breaker system in place, any ties in the final standings of either conference resulted in a playoff game being played at the end of the regular season. Playoff games were played in 1941, 1943, 1947, two games in 1950, one in 1952, 1957, 1958, and 1965. Since the venue and date of the championship game were often not known until the last game of the season had been played, these playoff games sometimes resulted in delaying the end of the season by one week.
The playoff structure used from 1933 to 1966 was considered inequitable by some because of the number of times it failed to match the teams with the two best records in the championship game. Four times between 1950 and 1966 (in 1951, 1956, 1960, and 1963) the team with the second-best win-loss record did not qualify for the playoffs while the team with the third-best record advanced to the championship game.
For the 1967 NFL season, the NFL expanded to 16 teams, and split its two conferences into two divisions each, with four teams in each division. The four division champions would advance to the NFL playoffs, and to remain on schedule, a tie-breaker system was introduced. The first round of playoffs determined the conference's champion and its representative in the NFL Championship Game, played the following week. Thus, 1967 was the first season there was a scheduled playoff tournament to determine the teams to play for the NFL Championship.
During the three years (1967-69) that this playoff structure was in effect, there was one use of the tie-breaker system. In 1967 the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Colts ended the season tied at 11-1-2 for the lead in the Coastal Division. The Colts came into the last game of the season undefeated, but were beaten by the Rams. Though the Colts shared the best won/loss record in the NFL that year, they failed to advance to the playoffs while three other teams with worse records won their divisions. This event figured into the decision in 1970 to include a "wildcard" team in the playoff tournament.
During the 1960s, a third-place playoff game was played in Miami, called the Playoff Bowl. It was contested in early January following the 1960–69 seasons. Though official playoff games at the time they were played, the NFL now officially classifies these ten games (and statistics) as exhibitions, not as playoff games.
Since it would eventually merge with the NFL, the history of the AFL's playoff system merits some explanation. For the 1960–68 seasons, the AFL used the two-divisional format identical to the NFL to determine its champion. There was no tie-breaker system in place, so ties atop the Eastern Division final standings in 1963 and Western Division in 1968 necessitated playoff games to determine each division's representative in the championship.
For the 1969 season, a second round was added whereby the each division winner played the second place team from the other division. The winners of this game met in the AFL Championship Game. In the only year of this format, the AFL Champion Kansas City Chiefs were actually the second place team in the Western division. Thus they were the first non-division winner to win a Super Bowl (the Chiefs would go on to decisively win Super Bowl IV that season).
The Super Bowl began as an inter-league championship game between the AFL and NFL. This compromise was the result of pressures the upstart AFL was placing on the older NFL. The success of the rival league would eventually lead to a full merger of the two leagues.
From the 1966 season to the 1969 season (Super Bowls I–IV) the game featured the champions of the AFL and NFL. Since the 1970 season, the game has featured the winners of the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC).
When the leagues merged in 1970, the new NFL (with 26 teams) reorganized into two conferences of three divisions each. From the 1970 season to the 1977 season, four teams from each conference (for a total of eight teams) qualified for the playoffs each year. These four teams included the three division champions, and a fourth Wild Card team.
Originally, the home teams in the playoffs were decided based on a yearly rotation. The league did not institute a seeding system for the playoffs until 1975, where the surviving clubs with the higher seeds were made the home teams for each playoff round. Thus, the top seeded division winner played the wild card team, and the remaining two division winners played at the home stadium of the better seed. However, two teams from the same division could not meet prior to the conference championship game. Thus, there would be times when the pairing in the Divisional Playoff Round would be the 1 seed vs. the 3 seed and 2 vs. 4.
Following an expansion of the regular season from 14 to 16 games in the 1978 season, the league added one more wild card team for each conference. The two wild card teams played the week before the division winners. The winner of this game played the top seeded division winner as was done from 1970–1977. The league continued to prohibit intra-divisional games in the Divisional Playoffs, but allowed such contests in the Wild Card Round. This ten-team playoff format was used through the 1989 season. Under this system, the Oakland Raiders became the first Wild Card team to win a Super Bowl following the 1980 season.
During the strike-shortened 1982 season, only nine regular season games were played, and a modified playoff format was instituted. Divisional play was ignored (there were some cases where division rivals had both games wiped out by the strike), and the top eight teams from each conference (based on W-L-T record) were advanced to the playoffs. This was the only year that teams with losing records qualified for the playoffs, the 4-5 Cleveland Browns and the 4-5 Detroit Lions.
For the 1990 season, a third wild card team for each conference was added, expanding the playoffs to twelve teams. The lowest-seeded division winner was then "demoted" to the wild card week. Also, the restrictions on intra-divisional games during the Divisional Playoffs were removed. This format continued until the 2002 expansion and reorganization into eight divisions. In this current format, as explained above, the 4 division winners and 2 wild cards are seeded 1–6, with the top 2 seeds receiving byes, and the highest seed in each round guaranteed to play the lowest seed. Also, seeds, not regular-season records, determine the home-field advantage. Thus, it is possible that a division champion could host a wild card playoff team that has a better win-loss record ; This is frequently the case when the number 4 seed hosts the number 5 seed.
Since the 2002 expansion to 8 divisions, there have been calls to expand the playoffs to 14 teams. Proponents of expansion note the increased revenue that could be gained from an additional two playoff games. They also note that the 12-team playoff system was implemented when the league only had 28 teams and six divisions (of 4 to 5 teams each). With expansion to 32 teams aligned in eight four-team divisions, there has been an effective loss of access to the playoff structure for wild-card teams and greater access to teams in weak divisions (for instance, in 2008, the San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals clinched playoff berths with only 8 wins each [though Arizona later earned a ninth by season's end], but the New England Patriots, with 11 wins, failed to secure a wild card spot). The opposition to such a move notes that an expansion of the playoffs would "water down" the field by giving access to lower-caliber teams. Opponents to expansion further point to the NBA Playoffs and the NHL playoffs where 16 of 30 teams qualify for the post season, and there is often a decreased emphasis on regular season performance as a result.
After the 2007 playoffs saw two wild card teams with better records (Jacksonville Jaguars and eventual Super Bowl XLII champions New York Giants) go on the road to defeat division winners (Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively) during Wild Card Weekend, the NFL explored another proposal to change the playoffs so that the team with the better record would host the game, even if that meant a division winner went on the road. The NFL's Competition Committee withdrew the request later that offseason, with Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay mentioning that they wanted the idea to simply get a discussion going. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was a strong opponent of the rule change, believing that "if you win a division, it's good for your fans to know you will have a home game."
|National Football League (2009)|
|Denver Broncos||Baltimore Ravens||Houston Texans||Buffalo Bills|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Cincinnati Bengals||Indianapolis Colts||Miami Dolphins|
|Oakland Raiders||Cleveland Browns||Jacksonville Jaguars||New England Patriots|
|San Diego Chargers||Pittsburgh Steelers||Tennessee Titans||New York Jets|
|Arizona Cardinals||Chicago Bears||Atlanta Falcons||Dallas Cowboys|
|St. Louis Rams||Detroit Lions||Carolina Panthers||New York Giants|
|San Francisco 49ers||Green Bay Packers||New Orleans Saints||Philadelphia Eagles|
|Seattle Seahawks||Minnesota Vikings||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Washington Redskins|
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.]] The National Football League (NFL) playoffs are a single-elimination tournament that happen at the end of the 16-game regular season. The team who wins all these playoff games are the NFL champion.