NFL postseason explained

NFL Wildcard
The NFL playoffs have been tweaked in recent years. Photo from Newsweek.

With the playoffs right around the corner, it’s the ideal time to have the NFL postseason explained.

With different NFL playoff rules and the number of teams in the postseason changing, most casual fans need the NFL postseason format explained so that they can keep up with the NFL playoffs format and how everything works.

NFL postseason explained

Fortunately, we’re happy to share the latest NFL postseason rules and everything else you need to know before the playoffs get underway. Without further delay, here is the NFL postseason explained.

How do the NFL Playoffs work?

While the other major sports have multi-game series when the playoffs arrive, the NFL doesn’t have that luxury. The NFL playoff format is all about one and done. It’s a single-game elimination tournament that consists of three rounds, not including the Super Bowl. 

As most fans know, the NFL is divided into two conferences, the NFC and the AFC. The champion of each conference face one another in the Super Bowl, which means that teams only play opponents from their conference during the playoffs. 

The first round of the playoffs is called the Wild Card round. That’s followed by the Divisional Round and the conference championship games. The winners of two conference championship games then meet in the Super Bowl.

With the exception of the Super Bowl, every playoff game is played in the home stadium of one of the teams, so there are no neutral-site games. The higher-seeded team hosts every game, which creates incentives for teams to not just get to the playoffs but earn the highest seed possible. This means that the highest seed in each conference at the end of the regular season will never have to play away from home until they reach the Super Bowl.

How many teams make the Postseason?

Currently, there are 14 teams in the NFL postseason. The league has consistently expanded the number of playoff teams in its history.


Prior to 1967, there was just a championship game between the two division winners. In 1967, the playoffs were expanded to four teams. When the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970, the playoffs were expanded to eight teams. The NFL playoffs expanded again to 10 teams in 1978 and 12 teams in 1990. 

Finally, the league expanded to 14 playoff teams in 2020, which is where we currently sit, meaning seven teams from each conference make the postseason. With four divisions in each conference, the eight division winners are all guaranteed a spot in the playoffs regardless of their record. Meanwhile, the three best non-division winners from each conference are given Wild Card spots, bringing the total to 14 teams.

How many games are there in the NFL Postseason?

Since the NFL playoffs are single elimination and there are 14 teams, the playoffs consist of 13 games, including the Super Bowl.

During the first weekend of the playoffs, there are six games during the Wild Card Round. The following weekend, there are four games played during the Divisional Round.

That leaves the two conference championship games and the Super Bowl as the final three games of the playoffs.

Which teams get byes in the NFL Playoffs?

Now that there are seven teams from each conference in the NFL playoffs, there is only one team from each conference that gets a bye during the Wild Card Round.

The top seed from each conference gets Wild Card Weekend off in addition to getting home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Of course, from 1990 to 2019, there were four byes available. But with the latest format change, only the regular-season champion of each conference is fortunate to get the first weekend of the playoff off.

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How is NFL Postseason seeding decided?

Seeding for the NFL playoffs isn’t done strictly based on each team’s record, so things can get a little confusing. For starters, each conference has its own set of seeds, one through seven. The records of teams from the AFC have no impact on the seeds in the NFC and vice versa.

In each conference, the four division winners are always the top four seeds. These four teams are seeded one through four based on their record.

If multiple teams have the same record, there are tie-breaking procedures to determine what team should be seeded higher. This means that the division winner in each conference with the worst record is always the no. 4 seed, even if there are Wild Card teams with a better record. The Wild Card team with the best record will always be the no. 5 seed, followed by the next two Wild Card teams that receive the no. 6 and 7 seeds.

In this format, every game during the Wild Card Round is played between a division winner and a Wild Card team that didn’t win its division.

The no. 2 seed plays the no. 7 seed; the no. 3 seed plays the no. 6 seed; the no. 4 seed plays the no. 5 seed. Of course, the no. 1 seed has a bye and then plays the lowest remaining seed after the Wild Card Round with the two remaining teams playing each other in the Divisional Round. From there, the two winners of the Divisional Round meet in the conference championship game.

Why did the NFL expand the Playoffs?

There are several reasons why the NFL expanded its playoffs from 12 to 14 teams.

For starters, the 12-team format was instituted when the league had 28 teams, not 32, which is the current total.

Second, the 14-team format guarantees that every division winner gets to host at least one home playoff game, creating more incentive for teams to win their division and rewarding those eight teams.

Finally, adding two more playoff teams meant adding two more playoff games every year. Two extra playoff games means more viewers and more money. Granted, the financial aspect wasn’t necessarily the driving force in expanding the playoffs, but it didn’t hurt.

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About Bryan Zarpentine 273 Articles
Bryan Zarpentine is a freelance writer and editor with most of his work focusing on the world of sports. He is a 2008 graduate of Syracuse University and still resides in upstate New York.

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