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Beginner’s Guide To Understanding The NFL Playoffs

After a grueling regular season, the men get separated from the boys, and it’s time to get down to the real business. That’s right, we’re talking about the NFL Playoffs.

It’s the goal of every NFL franchise, but only a select few make it to the Playoffs each year, where they fight it out for the right to play in the greatest show in US sports, the Super Bowl.

But how exactly does it all work?

Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about the NFL Playoffs, from the schedule and how it works to reseeding and wild cards.

How Does The NFL Season Work?

The NFL is split into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).

Each conference has 16 teams, making a total of 32 teams in the whole NFL.

Each team plays 17 times across an 18-week period, typically starting in early September and ending in late December or early January.

After each team has played all their regular season matches, the 14 best teams battle it out to try and win the Super Bowl, the NFL’s overall championship game.

Divisions and Scheduling

The two NFL conferences are also split into divisions of four teams. These divisions are based on geography and historical rivalry from the pre-NFL era.

The AFC is made up of the following divisions:

North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers.

South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.

East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets.

West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers.

The NFC is made up of the following divisions:

North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings.

South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Commanders.

West: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks.

The NFL scheduling formula means that teams have a slightly different set of fixtures every year. They always play their divisional rivals twice, but the rest of their schedule is changeable.

The formula is as follows:

  • Each NFL team has to play the other three teams in its division twice, once at home and once on the road.
  • Each team plays one game against the four teams in another predetermined division within its own conference (which is rotated every three years). Two games at home and two on the road.
  • Each team plays one game against every team from the remaining two divisions in its conference that finished in a similar position in their divisional standings in the previous season. One game at home, one on the road.
  • Each team plays one game against all four teams from a predetermined division (which is rotated every four years) in the other conference. Two games at home and two on the road.
  • Each team also plays one game against another team from a predetermined division (which is rotated every four years) in the other conference that finished in a similar position in the final divisional standings in the previous season.

How The NFL Playoffs work

NFL game
Image: Zabdiel Gonzalez/Unsplash

Played since 1932, the NFL Playoffs are a knockout tournament.

So, if you lose, you go home and it’s back to the drawing board again next season. If you win, you’re one step closer to glory.

Seven teams from each conference fight it out in the Playoffs, with one team from the AFC and one from the NFC competing in the Super Bowl.

The Playoffs only feature the best teams (and usually the best players) in each season, so those golden weeks in the dead of winter provide white-hot entertainment for NFL fans across the globe.

The Playoffs can create unique matchups where even the biggest underdog has a chance.

When Do The NFL Regular Season And Playoffs Take Place?

The NFL regular season begins the weekend after the first Monday of September (Labor Day) and ends in early January.

The Playoffs take place across four weekends from January into February every season. The Super Bowl traditionally always took place on the first Sunday in February.

However, 2020 was the final Super Bowl played on the first Sunday in February for the foreseeable future due to the NFL’s new 17-game schedule.

Super Bowl LVI (2021) was played on the second Sunday in February, and Super Bowl LVII (2022) will follow suit.

Qualification And Seeding

14 teams qualify for the NFL Playoffs. This includes the four divisional champions and three wild cards from each conference.

The four teams with the best record in each conference (NFC and AFC) are seeded one through four. The team with the best record is seeded one, the second-best record is seeded two, and so on.

The two teams with the best record in each conference are then given a bye week (they don’t have to play) in the first round of the Playoffs, which is also known as ‘wild card weekend.’

Teams qualify for the Playoffs as ‘wild cards’ if they have one of the three best overall records (number of wins, losses, and ties) of all remaining teams in their conference.

The wild card teams are seeded numbers five, six, and seven based on their records.

Wild Cards Explained

‘Wild card’ Playoff teams were first introduced to the NFL in 1970, when the modern league was founded, following a merger of the National Football League and the American Football League.

Wild card teams are the three teams with the best records in each conference who do not win their division.

These teams always play on wild card weekend, the week before the divisional Playoffs.

The four division winners in each conference are seeded one to four based on their record, with the #1 seed getting a bye in the first round.

Each wild card team plays one of the divisional winners based on their rankings going into the Playoffs.

Each conference is split as follows:

Division Winner #1 – BYE

Division Winner #2 vs Wild Card #7

Division Winner #3 vs Wild Card #6

Division Winner #4 vs Wild Card #5

So, the better your regular season record, the more favorable your draw is in the Playoffs.

Reseeding In The NFL Playoffs

Throughout the Playoffs, the lowest-seeded team always plays against the highest-seeded team in each round.

The higher-seeded team always plays at home too. So, who you play against and where is always subject to change. This is known as reseeding. 

Reseeding is designed to give a significant advantage to the teams with the best regular-season records.

It also makes it difficult, but not impossible, for wild card teams to make it to the Super Bowl.

Reseeding often impacts the Playoffs and changes the picture for all the teams involved.

For example, both number one ranked teams in the 2022 Playoffs lost in the divisional round.

This meant the number two ranked teams now became number one and had the massive advantage of playing at home in all the rounds before the Super Bowl.

NFL Playoff Bracket

The Playoff ‘bracket’ is the Playoff schedule as it stands at the present time.

The bracket is subject to change depending on the regular season and Playoff results.

Eager fans start thinking about the Playoff bracket and what it might mean for their team’s ambitions as the season nears a close.

2023 Playoff Schedule

Key dates for the 2022 NFL Playoffs are:

First round: January 14-16

Divisional round: January 22-22

Conference round: January 29

Super Bowl LVI: February 12

The Super Bowl will be played at State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona, home of the Arizona Cardinals.

Lead image: Adrian Curiel/Unsplash

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