How the NFL Playoffs Work

Ever wondered how the NFL playoffs actually work?

How the NFL Playoffs Work
Wade McElwain

Written by: Wade McElwain

(Senior Sports Writer)

Last updated: 2023-11-03

How the NFL Playoffs Work

The NFL playoffs are a thrilling and much-anticipated part of the winter American sports calendar. It's a time when the best teams from both the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) battle it out on the gridiron for a chance to reach the pinnacle of the sport—the Super Bowl.
So how does an NFL team make it from the regular season to the playoffs, and how do the playoffs actually work?

Regular Season

Before a team can make it to the playoffs, it's important to understand the context of the competition. The NFL regular season consists of 32 teams, divided into two conferences: the AFC and the NFC. Each conference is further divided into four divisions, and teams compete for wins throughout the 18-week regular season. Teams actually only play 17 games, as they are awarded a 'bye week' once per season. The goal is to secure a spot in the playoffs by finishing as one of the top teams in your division or earning a wild card berth based on the overall record.

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Wild Card Round

The playoffs begin with the Wild Card Round, featuring the bottom of the playoff teams battling it out to move on to the next round. In 2020, the number of Wild Card teams allowed was extended from 2 to 3, allowing more games and more possibilities. The first-seeded team in each conference gets a bye during this week, with the number 2 seed having to host the number 7 seeded; third plays sixth; and fourth plays fifth. Anything can happen in this Wild Card round, as the winners of each game move onto the Divisional Round.

Divisional Round

One team has the luxury of getting a bye and a home game against the lowest-ranked opponent from each Conference to kick off the Divisional Round. The rest of the Divisional Round is made up of winners from the previous Wild Card round, who once again must face off against a team seeded against them. With a total of 4 games being played over the Divisional Weekend, the teams that emerge from this move on to the Conference Championships.

Conference Championships

The Conference Championships determine the champions of the AFC and NFC. The winners of these games are crowned conference champions and earn the right to represent their conference in the Super Bowl. These are hotly contested games, as AFC and NFC rivalries emerge, and many teams are just thankful that Tom Brady isn't playing anymore.

The Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is the grand finale of the NFL season, pitting the AFC champion against the NFC champion in a battle for the prestigious Lombardi Trophy. This single game, often referred to as the "Big Game" or "Super Sunday," is the culmination of months of hard-fought competition. It is typically held on the first Sunday in February and is a spectacle that goes beyond the sport, featuring an unforgettable halftime show, expensive commercials, and celebrity appearances. And getting there is the dream of every NFL player.
So now you know how the NFL playoffs work and the journey that NFL teams must take to get there. 
A team might have only a 1 in 32 chance of winning the Super Bowl, but for many, those are pretty good odds.

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Wade McElwain

Wade McElwain

Wade McElwain is our Mr. NFL, a bona fide North American sports nut who knows about NBA, NHL, MLB, PGA plus MMA boxing and more. Originally from Canada, Wade is also an international award-winning stand-up comedian; host of numerous TV game shows; and a TV producer & writer. He also runs NFL in London-the largest NFL fan group in Europe, and has hosted NFL events at Wembley and around the world. Yes, he lives alone and does nothing but watch sports.

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