In January, there is one topic consuming every type of news outlet and social media alike: the NFL Playoffs. This takes over three full weekends with its 12 games leading up to the biggest American sporting event of the year, the Super Bowl.
But like football, the playoffs themselves can be very confusing to understand with its many rules, so here’s an explainer for how it works.
The Structure of Teams
The first thing you need to know: there are 32 total teams in the league, but only 14 can make the playoffs, a change from the previous 12 teams.
There are two conferences the NFL is divided into: the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. This resulted from the rival American Football League merging with the NFL in 1970 to form a singular football league.
Each conference is divided into four divisions with four teams in each, a total of 16 teams per conference and eight divisions. These are the NFC North, East, South and West as well as the AFC North, East, South and West.
The playoffs pit the NFC teams against each other and the AFC teams against each other, with the best team from each conference facing off in the final Super Bowl.
Each conference has seven playoff spots called Seeds. The top four seeds are reserved for the winners of each division: the team with the highest win percentage in the division.
The remaining three seeds are called the Wild Card seeds: these teams haven’t won the division but are the best of the rest in the conference.
The Seeding Format:
- #1 Seed: Best Win Record (Conference and Division Winner)
- #2 Seed: Second-Best Win Record (Division Winner)
- #3 Seed: Third-Best Win Record (Division Winner)
- #4 Seed: Fourth-Best Win Record (Division Winner)
- #5 Seed: Best Win Record (Wild Card)
- #6 Seed: Second-Best Win Record (Wild Card)
- #7 Seed: Third-Best Win Record (Wild Card)
There are four playoff rounds: the Super Wild Card Weekend, the Divisional Round, the Conference Championship Sunday and the Super Bowl.
The Bye Teams
The #1 Seed in both conferences receives a bye in the Super Wild Card Round and doesn’t play until the Divisional Round where they will also receive home-field advantage.
Super Wild-Card Weekend
The #2-7 Seeds face each other in a total of six games, with three on Saturday and three on Sunday. The top three Seeds receive home-field advantage.
- #7 Seed at #2 Seed
- #6 Seed at #3 Seed
- #5 Seed at #4 Seed
The #1 Seeds finally play in this round and will face the worst-seeded winner of the Super Wild Card Weekend. Once this is confirmed, the other two teams face each other over four games this weekend, two on Saturday and two on Sunday.
Conference Championship Sunday
The winners of the divisional round will face off in the two championship games: the AFC Championship and the NFC Championship. The highest-seeded teams will host their opponents.
Arguably the biggest American sporting event of the year, the winners of the championship games will face off in an epic showdown to determine who the best team in the NFL is.
Playoff games need to end with a clear winner, unlike regular season games that can end in a tie. Thus, the rules for overtime are different to give the teams a fairer chance of moving forward.
- Periods last 15 minutes rather than the regular season’s singular period of 10, as many as needed will occur until there is a winner
- Both teams get at least one possession even if the team that receives the first possession scores a touchdown
- If the score is still tied after both teams get possession, the next score wins the game
- No coaches’ challenges are allowed, only the replay official initiates replay reviews
- Each team gets three timeouts per half (two overtime periods) rather than two for a singular period
- Intermission between the regular time and the overtime has a maximum of three minutes
- Two-minute intermissions occur between each period, but no halftime between halves