How Do NFL Playoffs Work and Is It Fair?

With 2019 coming to an end, it’s time to start anticipating the NFL playoffs, which start on January 4. These games will lead up to Super Bowl LIV on February 2. So how do these playoffs work and are they fair to the many NFL teams vying for the chance to compete?

How do the NFL playoffs work?

The NFL has 32 teams, divided evenly into the AFC and NFC. Each conference is split into four divisions of four teams each. The AFC and NFC both have North, South, East, and West divisions. According to Sports Retriever, there have been four divisions in each conference, rather than three, since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002.

Just 12 teams make the playoffs, with six teams from each conference, explains Fox Sports. The number of teams included expanded in 1990 from 10 to 12, which is fewer than half the total teams. Each round is one game, so it’s a single-elimination tournament to determine the NFL champion.

Each conference’s four division champions are seeded based on their regular-season records. There are also two wild-card teams from each conference, and these are the two teams with the best regular-season records of the ones left. There are rules to handle any ties in records. The seeding also determines who hosts the games, except for the Super Bowl.

The four NFL playoff rounds

Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles congratulates Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints
Nick Foles of the Eagles congratulates Drew Brees of the Saints | Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The four rounds of the playoffs are the wild-card round, divisional round, conference championships, and Super Bowl. In the wild-card round, there are four games, according to Bleacher Report.

For both conferences, the third-seed division winner plays the sixth-seed wild card and the fourth-seed division winner plays the fifth-seed wild card. The first-seed and second-seed teams have a bye for this round.

In the divisional round, there are also four games. The first-seed divisional winner plays the lowest remaining seed from the wild-card round. The second-seed divisional winner plays the other remaining team from the wild-card round.

The two divisional round winners in each conference play in the AFC and NFC Conference Championships. Then the two conference champions meet in the Super Bowl to determine the NFL champion.

Are the NFL playoffs fair?

One problem with this setup is that a winning record doesn’t ensure a team will qualify for the playoffs. Therefore, if the top two teams in a conference are in the same division, they could end up seeded one and five. Then, they could play each other in the divisional round, knocking out one of the top teams early in the playoffs.

Plus, a team that wins a weak division advances to the playoffs even if it doesn’t have a winning record. Those teams benefit from just being the best of a bad group.

Stronger wild-card teams from other divisions are seeded lower than the weak division winners even if they have better regular-season records. CBS Sports points out that it’s happening right now; a team that has won fewer than half its games is currently leading its division.

As of publication, the Dallas Cowboys lead the NFC East with a 6-7 record. The wild-card teams, to be seeded fifth and sixth, will likely have better records. It’s likewise possible for a winning team in a strong division to not make the playoffs at all.

How can the NFL playoff setup improve?

The NFL playoffs could become fairer with some changes, like including more teams in the playoffs and changing how seeding works. One idea involves adding more teams, possibly 14, to the playoffs.

If 14 teams competed in the playoffs, explains Bleacher Report, then the second-seed team would likely not receive a bye during the first week. Instead, this team would play the seventh-seed team during the wild-card round.

An expanded postseason is currently being discussed as part of the NFL and NFLPA negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, along with an expanded regular season and reduced preseason.

Another idea is that teams could be reseeded based on their records before the playoffs. With a change to the seeding, different teams would be granted a bye week during the wild-card round. However, ESPN says the idea of changing the seeding “has gotten zero steam” from the NFL.