Each season, the National Football League holds its annual playoffs to determine its overall champion. The NFL playoffs date back to the beginning of the league in 1920. They have grown in popularity and are one of the most-watched sporting events of each year. Here is how the NFL’s postseason works.
When do the 2023–24 NFL Playoffs begin?
The 2023-24 NFL regular season will end on Sunday, January 7, 2024. The Wild Card playoff round for each conference is scheduled to start on January 13, 2024. The winners will face in the divisional round playoff games starting on Saturday, January 20, 2023.
When the NFL started in 1920, the league had no playoff system or even a championship game. The league’s championship was awarded by a vote of team owners. From 1924 to 1932, the team with the highest winning percentage has voted the champion. At that point, NFL teams each played different numbers of games. Simply awarding the title to the team with the most wins was not sufficient.
In 1932, the Chicago Bears (6-1-6) and Portsmouth Spartans (6-1-4) finished tied with the NFL’s highest winning percentage. An additional game was needed to determine the champion. This became the league’s first championship game. Its popularity led to the creation of the NFL Championship Game.
From 1933 to 1966, the league played its NFL title game between the winners of its two divisions. In 1967, the playoffs were expanded to allow four teams to compete. The final two players in what would become known later as the Super Bowl.
The playoffs continued to expand increasing to eight after the old AFL and the NFL merged in 1970. The postseason expanded to ten teams in 1978 and reached its current 12 teams in 1990.
Current Playoff System
The NFL has expanded over the years and currently remains divided into two conferences, the AFC and the NFC. Each conference is divided into four divisions. Seven teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. Teams automatically make the postseason when they win their division.
The division winners are seeded Nos. 1 through 4 based on their overall record. The remaining two playoff entrants are the two remaining conference teams with the best win-loss record. These teams are seeded No. 5 and No. 6. There are, of course, tiebreaker criteria to determine who makes the playoffs and how the teams are seeded.
There are some disadvantages to the NFL’s playoff system as was displayed in the 2010 postseason. Seattle, which finished 7-9, won the NFC West Division and hosted a playoff game. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both missed the playoffs despite having better records at 10-6.
The top two seeds in each conference receive a bye in the first round, also known as the Wild Card round. The No. 3 seed hosts the No. 6 seed and No. 4 plays host to No. 5. The winners advance to play to the top two seeds.
The NFL does not use a fixed bracket system. This means that the top seed will play the worst surviving seed after the Wild Card round. That could be No. 4, 5, or 6. In the 2019 NFL playoffs, sixth-seeded Tennessee won its first game beating No. 3 New England. The No. 1 seed was Baltimore, which hosted Tennessee in the Divisional Round.
The No. 2 seed then hosts the other remaining winner. In 2019, the second seed was Kansas City which hosted Houston.
The winners of the Divisional Round of play meet at the higher seed’s home stadium for their respective conference championships. The winners of the conference championship games will be played in the Super Bowl for a chance to win the Lombardi Trophy. Named for legendary coach Vince Lombardi, the trophy is given to the winner of the Super Bowl.
There is a proposal on the table to change the current playoff system. The NFL currently plays a 16-game regular season. A new proposal, to be voted on by the players’ association, eliminate one preseason game and would add a game to the regular and also add two more teams to the postseason.
Each conference would have an additional wild card making it seven teams that make the playoffs. Only the top seed in each conference would receive a bye in the first round. No. 1 seeds would only need to win two games to reach the Super Bowl. All other playoff entrants would need to win three games to get to the league’s ultimate game.
If the proposal is accepted, the new playoff system could be in effect as early as the 2020 season. If the new format had been in place last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have made the playoffs in the AFC and the Los Angeles Rams would have been the No. 7 seed in the NFC.