NFL Playoffs

How Does the New NFL Playoff Format Work?

Interest is always through the roof for football, but it becomes even more intense once the NFL Playoffs roll around. The culmination of a grueling regular season is a tournament featuring the best teams in the league with the winner being crowned Super Bowl champion.

For three straight weekends, the top squads for the season at hand go toe-to-toe on the gridiron with even more at stake than normal. Winners advance to play another day, while the losers face an offseason of coming to terms with what went wrong.

The drama plays out in real-time in front of a completely engrossed NFL fanbase. Television ratings are astronomical for the NFL Playoffs, and the betting volume for every one of the games is among the most impressive of the calendar year.

For this season and moving forward, the NFL Playoffs are about to get even better. Additional teams have been invited to the dance, and the format has been tweaked a bit as a result.

We’ll walk through how it’ll all work right here, as well as everything else you need to know about the most wonderful time of the year for the NFL. Let’s get to it.

Overview of NFL regular season

After a long offseason, NFL teams begin reporting to training camp over the summer. The countdown to the real deal officially begins around this time. There are some preseason games to whet the appetite, but that just makes the anticipation grow even stronger.

The NFL regular season typically kicks off on the Thursday after Labor Day with a standalone primetime game. From there, it’s on to a full Sunday slate of games, followed by a doubleheader on Monday Night Football.

From early September to late December or early January, there are 17 weeks of NFL regular-season action. Each team will play 16 games over this span while having one week off. Here’s the basic formula that the NFL schedule makers follow while putting it all together.

  • Teams play six games against their three division rivals with a home and away game against each of them.
  • Teams play four games against teams from another division in their conference — two home and two away — which rotates on an annual basis.
  • Teams play two games against teams from the other divisions in their conference based on the previous year’s standings — one home and one away.
  • Teams play four games against teams from a division in the other conference — two home and two away — which rotates on an annual basis.

The schedule is structured with an eye towards parity and fairness. Each club gets eight home and eight away games, but international games can impact one side of the equation for certain teams.

While the schedule makers do their best to even things out, it’s tough to make everyone happy. There are times when teams have long stretched home or away each season. However, all teams have to deal with that at some point, so it evens out in the long run.

Once the 17 weeks of the NFL regular season are in the books, the top squads earn berths in the postseason. In year’s past, it was six teams from both the AFC and NFC that made the NFL Playoffs for a total of 12 squads, but times are changing.

How does the new NFL Playoff format work?

NFL BettingThe NFL Playoffs will now include 14 teams — seven each from both the AFC and NFC. Before we break down how it will come together, let’s take a quick look back at where we came from.

Since 1990, there have been 12 teams in the NFL Playoff field each season. Initially, it was the three division winners in each conference, along with a trio of Wild Card teams on each side. In 2002, the NFL reorganized into four divisions in each conference due to expansion.

The format of 12 teams remained the same, but it shifted to four division winners and a pair of Wild Card teams from each conference. That structure remained in place through the 2019 campaign.

The 12-team field was set so that the top two seeds in each conference received a bye into the Divisional Round. The other four teams in the conference field played on Wild Card Weekend with the winners advancing to face off with the higher-seeded teams.

Now that there will be 14 teams in the field, the first-round bye has become even more of a reward. The top seed in each conference gets a pass for the opening round of the NFL Playoffs, while the remainder will settle it on the field to see who moves on.

NFL Wild Card Weekend

The NFL Playoffs open up with the Wild Card round, which has been expanded from four to six games to accommodate the additional team in each conference. The same seeding rules remain in effect for the new system.

The top team in the conference takes down the first seed and receives a bye. The remaining three division winners are seeds two through four based on the record. It’s the same for the Wild Card teams as they get seeded five through seven.

What happens when teams have the same record? We’ll cover the tie-breaking procedures in a bit. For now, here’s what the matchups will look like based on seeds in both conferences.

  • Seed 2 vs. Seed 7
  • Seed 3 vs. Seed 6
  • Seed 4 vs. Seed 5

The higher seeds, or all of the division winners, get home-field advantage for the games. As for the schedule, it calls for a trio of games on Saturday followed by three more on Sunday. Wild Card Weekend will live up to its name even further moving forward.

NFL Divisional Round

nfl betting tipsThe winners of the six Wild Card games advance to the NFL Divisional Round, which some observers view as the best overall weekend of football of the season. The top seed in both conferences will be waiting. Here’s how the matchups shake out on both sides.

  • The top seed faces the lowest remaining seed.
  • The other two winners from Wild Card Weekend square off.

The top seed in the conference has a home field in their matchup. For the other game, it’s also determined by seed with the higher-ranked squad earning the right to play at home.

A pair of games are held on Saturday, followed by two more on Sunday. The winners of the Divisional Round move one step closer to the Big Game.

NFL Conference Championships

The AFC and NFC Championship games both take place on Sunday. In recent years, one has been booked for the mid-afternoon window, while the other is scheduled to kickoff closer to primetime.

Once again, the home-field advantage is determined by seed. In the case of the top seed in the conference, they enter the NFL Playoffs knowing that they’ll play at home throughout as long as they remain alive.

Meanwhile, the number seven seed in both conferences has no hope for a home playoff game. Instead, they would have to win three straight on the road to make it to the Super Bowl.

Upsets happen in the NFL Playoffs, and the home field is no guarantee of advancement to the next round. As for the title tilts, the winners of the two Conference Championship Games advance to play in the Super Bowl.

How are teams seeded for the NFL Playoffs?

nfl bye weeks sports bettingEvery game matters in the NFL Regular Season from a betting perspective and the same holds in the standings. Those who notch the best records will reach the postseason, while the 18 other NFL teams get a jump start on the offseason.

The top overall seed in the conference will be one of the four division winners, who are ranked in order by the record with tiebreakers used as needed. The final three spots in each conference are the Wild Card teams.

They’re also seeded in order by the record. There are no requirements in place in terms of Wild Card clubs coming from different divisions. In theory, that means that all four teams from a single division could reach the postseason under the new format.

The top seed gets a bye to the Divisional Round, while the other three division winners get home games on Wild Card Weekend. As the rounds move forward, the higher-seeded team in a matchup gets home field.

Tie-breaking procedure for NFL Playoffs

As mentioned, NFL teams finish with the same record all of the time. Naturally, that’ll have a bearing on how the postseason field is decided. Here’s how it gets worked out.

The NFL applies a detailed set of tie-breaking rules to determine seeds in the case of ties in the record, as well as to figure out who gets the playoff spots when multiple teams with the same record are in the running.

Tiebreakers can also be needed to decide division winners. To break ties of two teams that come up, the NFL works through the following 12-step process.

  1. Head-to-head record
  2. Winning percentage in division games
  3. Winning percentage in common games
  4. Winning percentage in conference
  5. Strength of victory
  6. Strength of schedule
  7. Combined conference ranking for points scored and allowed
  8. Combined overall ranking in points scored and allowed
  9. Net points in common games
  10. Net points in all games
  11. Net touchdowns in all games
  12. Coin toss

The same procedure can also be used when three or more teams are involved. In cases such as this, the process is worked through until a team is eliminated. It’s then restarted at the top and worked through as many times as needed until the tie is broken.

To break ties for Wild Card purposes, there are two choices. When the teams are from the same division, the same 12 steps can be followed in order. If the clubs are from different divisions, step two — winning percentage in division games — is eliminated to make an 11-step process.

So how is home field priority determined for the division winners? What about for the Wild Card squads? It’s simply a matter of working through the applicable 12- or 11-step system to finding the answer.

The tie-breaking procedure takes a little getting used to when first exposed to it, but closer analysis shows that it’s a solid system. Also, it helps to further place in perspective the importance of divisional and conference games during the regular season.

How to bet on the NFL Playoffs

Every NFL game attracts lots of betting action, and interest is even higher come playoff time. You can follow the same handicapping principles that you normally would when the postseason rolls around, but there’s a handful of specific points you’ll want to keep in mind when betting on the NFL.

1. Rank the playoff field by recent play

While teams are seeded one through seven on both sides based on overall strength, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Some clubs enter the playoffs on high notes, while others are backing in. Taking the time to think this through can be one of the keys to spotting postseason upsets.

2. Review head-to-head/common opponents

If two teams matched up for the playoffs have squared off in the regular season, then you have some recent data to analyze. How did the gameplay out? If they haven’t played, then you can dig into common opponents and how they fared. Little clues such as this can help point out matchup advantages and disadvantages.

3. Watch where public and sharp money is flowing

Some resources track the flow of public money in percentage form, so be sure to take the time to research this valuable point. Sharp money can be a little more challenging to pinpoint, but you can keep your eyes peeled for things such as sudden line moves as a potential indicator.

4. Study line moves and shop around

Speaking of line moves, this also helps you to figure out which way the winds are blowing on public sentiment. Make note of the opening lines and compare them to where they currently stand in the days leading up to the game. Also, remember to shop around at multiple operators to find the most attractive odds.

Last but not least, you won’t be lacking for opinions on how the games are going to play out. While there’s nothing wrong with respecting the takes of sources you trust, too much noise can leave you with a lack of clarity on which way you want to go. Remember to trust your instincts and treat your research as the final word.

Which NFL team has made it to the playoffs the most times?

Some NFL franchises have quite the track record when it comes to the postseason. Others? Not so much. Here’s a look at the total appearances in the NFL Playoffs for all 32 teams along with what happened the last time they made it that far.

Playoff Berths
Last Appearance
Dallas Cowboys
332018 - Lost Divisional Round
Green Bay Packers
332019 - Lost NFC Championship Game
New York Giants
322016 - Lost Wild Card Game
Pittsburgh Steelers
312017 - Lost Divisional Round
Minnesota Vikings
302019 - Lost Divisional Round
Los Angeles Rams
292018 - Lost Super Bowl
Chicago Bears
282018 - Lost Wild Card Game
Indianapolis Colts
282018 - Lost Divisional Round
New England Patriots
272019 - Lost Wild Card Game
Philadelphia Eagles
272019 - Lost Wild Card Game
San Francisco 49ers
272019 - Lost Super Bowl
Cleveland Browns
242002 - Lost Wild Card Game
Washington Football Team
242015 - Lost Wild Card Game
Miami Dolphins
232016 - Lost Wild Card Game
Tennessee Titans
232019 - Lost AFC Championship Game
Denver Broncos
222015 - Won Super Bowl
Kansas City Chiefs
222019 - Won Super Bowl
Las Vegas Raiders
222016 - Lost Wild Card Game
Los Angeles Chargers
192018 - Lost Divisional Round
Buffalo Bills
182019 - Lost Wild Card Game
Seattle Seahawks
182019 - Lost Divisional Round
Detroit Lions
172016 - Lost Wild Card Game
Atlanta Falcons
142017 - Lost Divisional Round
Cincinnati Bengals
142015 - Lost Wild Card Game
New York Jets
142010 - Lost AFC Championship Game
New Orleans Saints
132019 - Lost Wild Card Game
Baltimore Ravens
122019 - Lost Divisional Round
Arizona Cardinals
102015 - Lost NFC Championship Game
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
102007 - Lost Wild Card Game
Carolina Panthers
82017 - Lost Wild Card Game
Jacksonville Jaguars
72017 - Lost AFC Championship Game
Houston Texans
62019 - Lost Divisional Round

Playoff teams for last 5 seasons if the new format was in place

There are routinely some close calls with teams coming up just short of the NFL Playoffs. A seventh team making the dance in each conference equals something else to strive for, but there will still be clubs that just miss. If we look back over the past five seasons, here’s what the field would’ve looked like if the new format was in place.

  • 2019 NFL Playoffs
    • AFC Seeds: 1. Ravens, 2. Chiefs, 3. Patriots, 4. Texans, 5. Bills, 6. Titans
    • NFC Seeds: 1. 49ers, 2. Packers, 3. Saints, 4. Eagles, 5. Seahawks, 6. Vikings

On the AFC side, the Steelers were the bubble team with a mark of 8-8, while the Rams were on the outside looking in at the NFC with a record of 9-7. The Chiefs and Titans faced off in the AFC title game, while it was 49ers vs. Packers in the NFC. The Chiefs would go on to defeat the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.

  • 2018 NFL Playoffs
    • AFC Seeds: 1. Chiefs, 2. Patriots, 3. Texans, 4. Ravens, 5. Chargers, 6. Colts
    • NFC Seeds: 1. Saints, 2. Rams, 3. Bears, 4. Cowboys, 5. Seahawks, 6. Eagles

Once again, it was the Steelers who just missed out on the AFC side with a record of 9-6-1. The Vikings came up just short in the NFC at 8-7-1. The Patriots beat the Chiefs for the AFC crown, while the Rams handled the Saints to take the NFC. The Patriots would go on to victory over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

  • 2017 NFL Playoffs
    • AFC Seeds: 1. Patriots, 2. Steelers, 3. Jaguars, 4. Chiefs, 5. Titans, 6. Bills
    • NFC Seeds: 1. Eagles, 2. Vikings, 3. Rams, 4. Saints, 5. Panthers, 6. Falcons

The Ravens and Chargers were the next in line in the AFC with matching records of 9-7. The former would’ve made it with a better conference winning percentage. There was a three-way tie at 9-7 for the 7th spot in the NFC. The Lions would’ve won tiebreakers over the Seahawks and Cowboys. It was Patriots over Jaguars in the AFC title game, and Eagles over Vikings in the NFC. The Eagles took down the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

  • 2016 NFL Playoffs
    • AFC Seeds: 1. Patriots, 2. Chiefs, 3. Steelers, 4. Texans, 5. Raiders, 6. Dolphins
    • NFC Seeds: 1. Cowboys, 2. Falcons, 3. Seahawks, 4. Packers, 5. Giants, 6. Lions

The Titans and Broncos were tied at 9-7 in the AFC, but the former had the tiebreaker advantage. The Buccaneers would’ve been the 7th seed in the NFC at 9-7. The Patriots defeated the Steelers to win the AFC, while it was Falcons over Packers in the NFC. The Patriots came out on top of the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

  • 2015 NFL Playoffs
    • AFC Seeds: 1. Broncos, 2. Patriots, 3. Bengals, 4. Texans, 5. Chiefs, 6. Steelers
    • NFC Seeds: 1. Panthers, 2. Cardinals, 3. Vikings, 4. Washington, 5. Packers, 6. Seahawks

The Jets just missed out on the party in the AFC at 10-6, while the Falcons would’ve been the last participant in the NFC at 8-8. The Broncos won the AFC title game over the Patriots, while it was the Panthers defeating the Cardinals in the NFC. The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 by a score of 24-10 over the Panthers.

The 5 biggest upsets in recent NFL Playoff history

Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been some memorable upsets in the postseason. In recent times, we’ve seen some stunners that have shaken up the landscape. Here’s a look back at five that moved the needle in the NFL Playoffs.

  1. Titans over Ravens, 2019 Divisional Round: The Ravens entered the game as 10-point home favorites, but the Titans had vastly different ideas. The Tennessee running game went bonkers, while the defense handled the rest in a 28-12 beatdown.
  2. Steelers over Jaguars, 2017 Divisional Round: Jacksonville took the trek to Pittsburgh as 7-point underdogs. An unexpected shootout developed, and it was the Jaguars with a surprising 45-42 win to advance to the AFC title game.
  3. Ravens over Broncos, 2012 Divisional Round: Led by Peyton Manning, the Broncos were 9.5-point home favorites over the visiting Ravens. In one of the most thrilling playoff games of the past decades, Baltimore pulled out a 38-35 stunner in double overtime.
  4. Jets over Patriots, 2010 Divisional Round: The Patriots have dominated the AFC East since the turn of the century. However, the division rival Jets were able to gain more than temporary bragging rights with a 28-21 win as 9-point road underdogs.
  5. Seahawks over Saints, 2010 Wild Card: The Seahawks backed into the playoffs with a mark of 7-9, while the Saints were 11-5 and defending Super Bowl champs. Marshawn Lynch had a 67-yard TD run for the ages as part of a shocking 41-36 win for Seattle.

The 5 best NFL teams that didn’t make it to the Super Bowl

Football is a game of inches, and even the best teams in the NFL will come up short at certain times. When that happens in the postseason, it’s all the more devastating. Here’s a look back at five teams that were more than talented enough to win a Super Bowl, but they never even got a chance to prove it.

  • 1998 Minnesota Vikings
    • Record: 15-1
    • Playoffs: Lost NFC Championship Game at home to Atlanta Falcons in OT

One of the most prolific offenses in NFL history and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs didn’t translate into a Super Bowl berth. Minnesota made it back to the title game two seasons later, but they were smoked on the road by the New York Giants.

  • 1989 Philadelphia Eagles
    • Record: 11-5
    • Playoffs: Lost Wild Card game at home to Los Angeles Rams

A dynamic playmaker at the helm in Randall Cunningham, as well as a loaded defense didn’t translate into playoff success for Philadelphia. The Eagles of this era had the goods but came up short in three straight postseasons.

  • 1986 Cleveland Browns
    • Record: 12-4
    • Playoffs: Lost to Denver Broncos in AFC Championship Game at home in OT

Cleveland was looking like the real deal in the mid- to late-80s, but it just wasn’t meant to be. This was the first of three losses in the AFC title tilt in four years, all coming at the hands of the Broncos.

  • 1980 San Diego Chargers
    • Record: 11-5
    • Playoffs: Lost AFC Championship Game at home to Oakland Raiders

This squad had a potent offense, led by Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, and the home-field advantage for the AFC title tilt. Three turnovers later, it was the Raiders representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

  • 1979 Houston Oilers
    • Record: 11-5
    • Playoffs: Lost at Pittsburgh Steelers in AFC Championship Game

The team that would go on to become the Tennessee Titans was a huge factor in the AFC in the late-70s. Unfortunately, so were the Steelers. The Oilers lost to the Pittsburgh dynasty in the AFC title game two years in a row.

NFL Playoffs FAQ

When do the NFL Playoffs start?

The NFL regular season wraps up with Week 17, which typically takes place in the last week of December or the first week of January. The NFL Playoffs begin the following week with Wild Card Weekend, which is scheduled for Jan. 9-10, 2021 next time around.

Where are NFL Playoff games held?

NFL playoff games are contested on the home field of the higher-seeded team from the Wild Card round through the Conference Championship games. The Super Bowl is played at a neutral-site location. There has been chatter about using a ‘playoff bubble’ for the next NFL Playoffs, but there is no confirmation on that as of yet.

How many NFL teams make it to the playoffs?

From 1990 through 2019, it was 12 teams in the postseason field – six teams each from both the AFC and NFC. Starting with the 2020 campaign, there will be a total of 14 teams – seven from each conference – in the NFL Playoffs.

How do the NFL Playoffs work in 2020?

The NFL has made the first change to its playoff format since 2002 when they shuffled things around slightly due to expansion. Beginning in 2020, the field will be expanded from 12 to 14 teams. Instead of two teams from each conference getting a first-round bye, it’ll be just one squad on both sides that gets to take Wild Card Weekend off.

The new format calls for six games on Wild Card weekend as opposed to four from the previous iteration. The remainder of the postseason remains the same: four games for the Divisional Round, and two for the Conference Championships with the winners advancing to the Super Bowl.

How often do NFL teams with a first-round bye make it to the Super Bowl?

If we go back to the expansion of the postseason field from five to six teams in 1990, there have been 30 Super Bowl games played. Of the total of 60 potential spots in the Big Game over that span, 48 of them have been filled by teams that had first-round byes. The last team to make it to the Super Bowl without a first-round bye was the 2012 Baltimore Ravens. They defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII by a score of 34-31.

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