Football Basics – How NFL Teams Make the Playoffs

Football Making the Playoffs NFL

With only 3 weeks left in the regular season, you’ve probably heard some talk about the playoffs. If you don’t understand how teams make the playoffs, you’ve come to the right place!

Let’s take a step back and look at the NFL calendar.

Preseason: 4 games in August/early September

Regular season: 16 games from September to December over a 17-week period

Playoffs / Postseason: Up to 4 games in January through first weekend in February over a 5-week period.

(If you want a more in-depth look at the NFL calendar, check out Val’s excellent summary here.)

The preseason games essentially don’t count for anything. They are used for player evaluation purposes and for frugal people (like us) to buy cheap tickets to games.

Regular season results determine which teams make the playoffs. Of course, it isn’t as straightforward as the 12 teams with the best win-loss records making the playoffs. No, that would be too simple.

This is when we start to care about divisions and conferences.


If you aren’t familiar with how the 8 divisions within 2 conferences make up the league, you can read our post on that topic here. We’ll wait a moment while you refresh your memory…

OK, are we good now?


Like I said, 12 teams out of the 32 make the playoffs each year. There are 6 teams from the AFC and 6 teams from the NFC. Having 6 teams from each conference facilitates a bracket-style playoff, so that the winner of the AFC will play the winner of the NFC in the Super Bowl.

How are the 6 teams from each conference decided? Well, 4 of the teams are division winners. If you have the best win-loss record in your division (AFC/NFC North, South, East, or West), you get a spot in the playoffs.

If two teams in the same division have the same record, there are a list of tie-breakers in place. The next level of the tie-breaker is win-loss record within the division. Remember, each team plays the 3 teams in their division twice during the season, so this tie-breaker specifically looks at the win-loss record of those 6 games. If that’s still a tie, then the next level is best win-loss record in games played against the same opponents. There are 9 more levels of tie-breakers, with the last being a coin toss. Yes, a coin toss. (It’s never gotten to this level, but wouldn’t that be entertaining for us/traumatizing for the teams?)

Anyway…back to the 6 teams in each conference. Besides the 4 divisional winners, there are 2 wildcard teams. These teams did not win their division, but they have the best overall records (and win all the tie-breakers) compared to the other teams in their conference.

This means that a wildcard winner could have a better overall record than a divisional winner. (Sometimes this causes drama, which we will get into later.)

OK, so we’ve established which teams make the playoffs. What happens next?

The teams get seeded (this means ranked) within each conference based on their win-loss record and tie-breakers. Seeding is important because it determines where games are played and when a team has to play games. Teams want the highest seed possible because you get some perks which I will explain in a second.

The 4 divisional winners are always ranked 1 through 4. The wildcard winners get the 5th and 6th seeds. Higher seeded teams always get home-field advantage. It’s like the league is telling the wildcards, “Good job for making it to the playoffs, but we’re not going to make this easy for you.”

Example NFL Playoff Seeding Scenario

The first weekend of playoffs is called wildcard weekend. The wildcard teams play the 3rd and 4th seed within their conference. These games are played at the 3rd and 4th seeds’ home stadiums. (Two games are played on Saturday, two on Sunday.) The 1st and 2nd seeds in each conference get the weekend off, which is desperately needed because of injuries and it also rewards the teams with more preparation time.

Wildcard Weekend Scenario

The winners from wildcard weekend go on to play the 1st and 2nd seeds the following weekend. The 1st seed plays the lowest seeded winner from the wildcard weekend and the 2nd seed plays the other winning team from the wildcard weekend. (Two games are played on Saturday, two on Sunday).

NFL Divisional Round Playoff Example

The games during the third weekend of playoffs are the conference championships. The winners of the divisional games within each conference play each other. So using the example above, the winner of Game 1 would play the winner of Game 2, and the winner of Game 3 would play the winner of Game 4.

The winners of these games are the NFC and AFC Champions. They get hats and t-shirts proclaiming their status as conference champs and the team gets a cool trophy that’s nice to have, but not as pretty as the Lombardi trophy.

The AFC champs and the NFC champs go on to play each other in the Super Bowl to get the Lombardi trophy.

The winner of the Super Bowl goes to Disney World.

Wow, that was a lot.

Here’s a cheat sheet of important things to remember about the playoffs in general:

Things to Remember about the NFL playoffs

So what else do you need to know about the playoffs?

Well, a few years back the NFL changed the regular season schedule so that most teams end their season with divisional games. This keeps things more competitive and prevents teams from sitting their starters if they’ve already qualified for the playoffs and don’t truly need to win the game in order to advance to the playoffs.

The other thing that you need to know is that there’s always talk about how unfair the seeding system is, especially when you have wildcard teams with better records never getting home-field advantage in the playoffs. Take this year, for instance – the NFC South is not a strong division in 2014. All the teams are having a pretty sucktastic year and with 3 weeks to go, all of these teams have winning records below 0.500. One team from this division will still go to the playoffs, however, and could potentially do so after losing more games than they won. Doesn’t seem very fair, does it?

When you hear that teams are still “in the hunt” for the playoffs, it means that it is still statistically possible for them to make the playoffs, either as a divisional winner or a wildcard winner. Often, there will be multiple teams with the same win-loss record – some will make it to the playoffs and some won’t.

Have any more question about the playoffs? Let us know in the comments below.

– Michelle


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