Understanding the NFL Playoff Format

By Ted Rollins , last updated December 29, 2011

For many American sports fans, the NFL playoffs are the most exciting time of the year, due in no small part to the sport's playoff format. Unlike the other major American sports, the NFL uses a single elimination playoff system, whereas basketball, baseball and hockey all have five and seven game series. The NFL's playoff format has a lot to do with why it's quickly becoming the country's most-loved sport.

Conference and Divisional System

To understand the NFL playoff format, you must first get a grasp on the way the conference system is set up. All of the NFL teams are either in the American Footbal Conference (AFC) or National Football Conference (NFC). Each conference contains 16 teams, making for a total of 32 NFL teams. Within each conference are 4 divisions, each containing 4 teams. Over the course of a season, each NFL team plays a total of 16 games, with 6 of those games in its conference, playing each of its divisional opponents once at its home stadium and once away. The team's record over these 16 games determine the seeding for the playoffs.

Seeding

The only way for a team to get a guaranteed spot in the NFL playoffs is to win its division. That means that the 8 teams that win their respective divisions get the majority of the 12 playoff slots. The remaining slots go to the two teams in each conference with the best overall winning percentage, in what is called the wild card slot. If there are three or more teams with the same record going for the wild card slot, then a complex set of formulas is employed to determine the winner of each wild card slot. Now all of the teams entering the playoffs have been determined.

Wild Card and Divisional Rounds

The playoff process is used to determine which team in each conference gets the chance to compete against the other conference in the Super Bowl. The first round of the playoffs is called the wild card round, as each game features one of the wild card winners. All of the division winners are seeded based on their regular season success, and the best two teams in each conference get byes into the second round. The third and fourth division winners compete agains theta wild card winners to advance to the second round. The wild card team with the best record plays the division winner with the worst record, while the second wild card winner in each conference plays the third best division winner. The winner of that first game will play the best team in the conference, while the winner of the second game plays the second best division winner; this constitutes the second round or divisional round of the NFL playoffs in each conference.

Conference Championships and Super Bowl

Next comes the third round of the playoffs, which is also called the conference championships. In this round, there are only four teams remaining, with two from each conference. The two teams left from each conference play at the home stadium of the better team for the chance to compete in the Super Bowl. After a two week break the Super Bowl occurs at a neutral site; this game, the biggest in American sports, determines the best team in the league for the year.

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