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NFL Playoffs

The NFL is a league where 32 teams are divided between two conferences. The two conferences (American Football Conference and National Football Conference) are further divided amongst four divisions. The regular season features 17 Gameweeks where each team across both conferences play to try and top their divisional table.  



The NFL playoffs are a postseason round of games where the top-seeded teams from each conference compete. 7 teams each from the NFC and the AFC qualify for the NFL playoffs where they play each other in single-game elimination rounds. Playoff champions from the NFC and playoff champions from the AFC meet each other at the most exciting NFL postseason game, the NFL Super Bowl. 


The regular season is coming to a conclusion and it is now time to get excited about the playoffs. Here is a rehash of the rules and format of the playoff so that you have no confusion going into the latest edition of the NFL playoffs.   


NFL Playoffs Qualifying Rules 


The number of teams who make it to the NFL playoffs is currently 14 (7 from each conference). When the AFL and NFL merger formally happened in 1970, there were eight teams who qualified for the playoffs. The number of qualifying playoff teams expanded to 10 in 1978 and then to 12 in 1990. The expansion of the number of teams qualifying for the playoffs to 14, happened recently in 2020. 


The qualifying rules for the NFL playoffs depend on the seasonal performance of each team. There are four divisions at each conference. The winners of each division get a spot in the NFL playoffs as they are the top-seeded team in their respective divisions. The remaining spots are referred to as the Wild Card spots. These spots are filled by 3 teams from each conference. The non-division winners with the best records in their respective conference fill in the Wild Card spots for the playoffs. 


NFL Playoffs

Total qualifying teams - 14 

Divisional champions - 8 (4 from each conference) 

Wild card spots - 6 ( 3 best performing teams from each conference) 


NFL Playoffs Tie-Breaking Rules 


Teams qualifying for the playoffs are easily decided when there are teams with distinctive records. However, it may also happen that two teams are tied on the basis of their regular-season record (the won-lost-tied record is the same). In such cases, the qualifying team is decided with the help of tie-breaking rules. 


Divisional tie-breaker rules:


1. The team with the better head to head record (won-lost-tied percentage against each other) qualify for the playoffs. 


2. Head to head- The team with the better won-lost-tied percentage among games played in the division qualifies. 


3. Best won-loss-tied percentage in games played against common opponents gets through to the playoffs. 


4. The team with the best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference makes it to the playoffs.


5. Strength of Victory- The combined won-lost-tied record of all the teams defeated by the two teams is assessed. The team with the better percentage qualifies. 


6. Strength of Schedule- Combined won-lost-tied percentage of all teams that the franchises have played against is calculated. The team who played against opponents with a better win percentage qualifies. 


7. The team with the better combined rank among conference teams (points scored and points allowed) qualifies. 


8. Best combined rank among all teams in points scored and points allowed. 


9. Team with the best net points in common games qualifies. 


10. The team with the best net point in all games qualifies. 


11. The team with the better net touchdown record in all games qualifies. 


12. If all the above criteria cannot decide the qualifying team, it is decided with the help of a coin toss. 


Conference tie-breaker rules: 


1. Division tie-breaker rules are applied to decide the highest-ranking club from each division. 


2. Head to head rule is applied to decide a playoff team. 


3. The team with the best won-loss-tied percentage in games played within the conference qualifies. 


4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games (minimum of four) determines the qualifying team. 


5. Strength of victory rule is applied. 


6. The strength of schedule rule is applied. 


7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed. 


8. Best combined rank among all teams in points scored and points allowed. 


9. Team with the best net points in common games qualifies. 


10. The team with the best net point in all games qualifies. 


11. The team with the better net touchdown record in all games qualifies. 


 These rules are applied even if three teams are tied for one qualifying spot. Once the third team gets eliminated, the elimination process for the two teams begins from step 1 again. 


NFL Playoffs Overtime Rules 


Unlike regular-season games, playoff matches cannot end in a tie since they are knockout games. Postseason overtime rules are used to determine the winner of the game. The original format was ‘sudden death’, where the team who scored first would qualify to the next round. Since 2010 the NFL introduced new playoff overtime rules. The first team scoring a touchdown will win or if the defending team scores a safety first (during the opponent's possession). 


If a team in possession scores a field goal, the opponent is given a chance to score too. If the score remains tied after this, then sudden death rules apply for the overtime.  


NFL Playoffs Format 




The playoff games are decided based on the seeding that each qualified team receives. The four division champions of each conference are the top 4 seeded teams. They are seeded one through four based on their overall seasonal performance. If there is a tie, then tie-breaker rules are applied. The wild card team with the best sesonal record is seeded 5th. The remaining two teams are seeded 6th and 7th based on their seasonal performance too. 


The teams who are seeded 1 get a bye for the first postseason match. Therefore the top seeded team from NFC and AFC do not have to play the first playoff round. The 2nd seeded team plays the 7th seeded team in the conference. The 3rd seeded team plays the 6th seeded team. The 4th seeded team plays the 5th seeded team. 


The playoffs are knockout games and after the Wildcard round of the playoffs is over. The remaining team with the lowest seed plays against the top seeded team of the conference. The second seeded team plays against the second lowest seeded team. The Conference championship is played by the remaining teams. The conference champions meet each other at the NFL Super Bowl which is the final postseason game.     



NFL Playoff Appearances by year- active teams 


While some teams are no strangers to playoffs, others do not seem to make the cut frequently. Here is an overview of the playoff appearances of each team ever since the first NFL playoff took place (in 1932). 



Team Appearances (till 2020-2021 playoffs)
Green Bay Packers 34
Dallas Cowboys 34
Pittsburgh Steelers 32
New York Giants32
Los Angeles Rams 30
Minnesota Vikings 30
Indianapolis Colts 29
Chicago Bears27
San Francisco 49ers 27
Philadelphia Eagles 27
New England Patriots 27
Cleveland Browns 25
Washington Football Team25
Tennessee Titans 24
Kansas City Chiefs 23
Miami Dolphins 23
Las Vegas Raiders 22
Denver Broncos 22
Buffalo Bills 20
Seattle Seahawks 19
Los Angeles Chargers 19
Detroit Lions 17
New Orleans Saints 14
Atlanta Falcons 14
Cincinnati Bengals 14
New York Jets 14
Baltimore Ravens 13
Tampa Bay Buccaneers11
Arizona Cardinals 10
Carolina Panthers 8
Jacksonville Jaguars 7
Houston Texans 6


All-time Playoff Records 


Most playoff wins 

New England Patriots - 37 games (1963-2019) 


Most consecutive post season games won (consecutively) 

New York Giants - 5 games (2007, 2011)


Most points in a single playoff season 

San Francisco 49ers - 131 games (1994)


Most playoff games lost 

Minnesota Vikings - 30 games


Longest playoff losing streak  

Detroit Lions - 9 games (1991, 1993-1995, 1997, 1999, 2011, 2014, 2016) 



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