What is the definition of Playoff in American Football?

The playoffs in American Football, specifically the National Football League (NFL), are a highly anticipated and competitive series of games that follow the regular season. This single-elimination tournament serves as the culmination of the year’s competition, featuring the best and most well-performing teams, as they battle for the ultimate title – Super Bowl champions. The league’s two conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC), each send seven teams to participate in the playoffs, making the road to the Super Bowl an intense and captivating experience for fans, players, and coaches alike.

Throughout the years, the NFL playoffs have evolved. As the league expanded, more teams entered the playoff bracket, and the Super Bowl’s prestige and global appeal skyrocketed. The playoff structure, seeding, and significant moments have contributed to shaping NFL history and creating unforgettable stories. With each passing season, anticipation grows as football enthusiasts eagerly await the next clash of titans on the field.

Key Takeaways

  • NFL playoffs are a single-elimination tournament featuring the best teams competing for the Super Bowl title
  • Both the AFC and NFC conferences send seven teams each to participate in the playoffs
  • Playoff structure, seeding, and memorable moments have shaped NFL history and captivated fans worldwide

History of NFL Playoffs

The NFL playoffs have evolved over time since the league’s inception in 1920. In the early years, the NFL determined its champions based on end-of-season standings. A playoff system was introduced in 1933, with the exception of a one-game playoff in 1932.

In 1978, the NFL expanded the playoffs from 8 to 10 teams, adding another round to the postseason. This new round featured a game in each conference involving two wild-card teams (non-division winners) and was consequently known as the “Wild Card” round. From this point, several changes have taken place to accommodate further expansions in the number of teams participating.

The current playoff format has grown to include 14 teams, with the first round being dubbed the wild-card round, or wild-card weekend. This expansion took place in 2021, which added a third wild-card team to each conference and was referred to as “super wild-card weekend.”

Over the years, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots have dominated the playoff scene, both winning multiple Super Bowl titles. In 2005, the Steelers marked a milestone achievement by becoming the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl.

Throughout the history of the NFL playoffs, numerous memorable moments, triumphs, and disappointments have occurred, contributing to the rich tapestry of American football. As the competition moves forward, fans can undoubtedly expect additional changes and evolution in the playoff system, as well as new and thrilling moments in NFL history.

Playoff Structure

Wild Card Round

The NFL playoffs begin with the Wild Card Round, featuring six games played by the teams ranked 2 through 7 in each conference. The top 4 seeds are the division winners, while the next 3 seeds are wild-card teams (those with the best records that did not win their divisions). The No. 2 seed faces the No. 7 seed, the No. 3 seed takes on the No. 6 seed, and the No. 4 seed battles the No. 5 seed.

Divisional Round

Following the Wild Card Round, the Divisional Round takes place. In this round, the No. 1 seed in each conference, who received a bye during the Wild Card Round, faces the lowest remaining seed from the previous round. Meanwhile, the two remaining teams face each other. This results in a total of four games: two in each conference.

Conference Championships

The winners of the Divisional Round move on to the Conference Championships, where the two remaining teams in each conference square off to determine who advances to the Super Bowl. There are two Conference Championship games: one for the American Football Conference (AFC) and the other for the National Football Conference (NFC).

Super Bowl

The culmination of the NFL playoffs is the Super Bowl, where the AFC and NFC champions compete for the title of world champions. The Super Bowl is held annually and is a major event in American sports culture. The winner receives the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named after legendary coach Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to multiple championships in the 1960s.

Playoff Seeding

Bye Week

In the NFL playoffs, the teams with the highest seeding in each conference, typically the #1 seed, receive a first-round bye. This means they do not have to play a game during the wild-card round and automatically advance to the divisional round. The bye week offers these teams extra rest and preparation time, which can be a significant advantage in pursuing the championship.

Seeding Criteria

Seeding in the NFL playoffs is determined based on several factors:

  • Division winners: Each of the four division winners in the AFC and NFC conferences receives seeds #1 through #4. These seeds are given based on overall win-loss records, with the best record receiving the top seed.
  • Wild Card teams: The three non-division-winning teams with the best win-loss records in each conference are awarded the wild card seeds, #5 through #7. They are also seeded based on their win-loss records, with the best wild card team receiving the #5 seed.

If two or more teams have the same win-loss record, tiebreakers are applied in the following order:

  1. Head-to-head record (if applicable)
  2. Win-loss percentage in conference games
  3. Win-loss percentage in common games
  4. Strength of victory
  5. Strength of schedule
  6. Other criteria, if necessary, such as point differential


During the playoffs, the NFL re-seeds teams after each round to ensure the highest-seeded team plays the lowest-seeded team in the next round. This re-seeding process is meant to reward the higher-seeded teams with a slightly easier path to the Super Bowl, as they face lower-seeded opponents.

For example, in the divisional round, if the #1 seed and #2 seed advance, they will each face the lowest remaining seed after the wild-card round. This could be the #3, #4, #5, #6, or #7 seed depending on which teams advance from the wild-card round.

Using re-seeding in the playoff structure gives higher-seeded teams an advantage and helps maintain a competitive balance throughout the postseason.

Playoff Records

Individual Records

In the history of American football, numerous players have made their mark in the playoffs, achieving astounding records. A few notable individual records include:

  • Most touchdown passes in postseason history: Tom Brady with 83 touchdowns.
  • Most rushing yards in a single postseason: Terrell Davis with 581 yards in 1997.
  • Most receiving yards in a single postseason: Larry Fitzgerald with 546 yards in 2008.

These records showcase the impressive performances that have occurred in the playoff stage of American football.

Team Records

Similarly, some teams have etched their names into the record books with exceptional playoff performances. Here are a few standout team records:

  • Most postseason games won, all-time: New England Patriots with 37 wins from 1963-2019.
  • Most postseason home games won, all-time: New England Patriots with 23 wins from 1996-2019.
  • Longest playoff win streak: New England Patriots with 10 consecutive wins from 2001-2005.

These team records demonstrate the competitive nature and the high stakes involved in American football playoffs, with successful teams making history and leaving a lasting legacy.

Notable Playoff Moments

In the history of NFL playoffs, there have been several unforgettable moments that have left lasting impressions on fans and players alike. One such memorable instance is the famous “Music City Miracle” from the 1999 season, featuring the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills. In this play, the Titans executed an unexpected lateral pass that resulted in a 75-yard touchdown, allowing them to advance deeper into the playoffs. The Titans would eventually make it to the Super Bowl but lose to the St. Louis Rams.

Another notable moment occurred during the 2001 playoffs, when New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, then a second-string player, played a vital role in his team’s victory. In the divisional round against the Oakland Raiders, Brady threw for over 300 yards, leading to a game-winning field goal in overtime. This game, which is now known as the “Tuck Rule Game,” marked the beginning of Brady’s illustrious career and the Patriots’ dynasty.

The 2007 season provided another unforgettable moment in the playoffs. The New York Giants, led by quarterback Eli Manning, made an improbable run to win the Super Bowl. The Giants had to win three road playoff games in a row, including an upset victory over the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. One of the most iconic plays of that game is Manning’s miraculous escape from a potential sack, followed by his improbable completion to wide receiver David Tyree, who secured the football against his helmet for a crucial catch.

In the 2015 playoffs, another memorable play took place during the divisional round between the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals. Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw an incredible 41-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired, sending the game into overtime. However, the Cardinals would ultimately prevail in the thrilling matchup, showcasing the unpredictable nature of the NFL playoffs.

These moments are just a few examples of the excitement and drama that unfolds during the NFL playoffs, showcasing the phenomenal talent and resilience of the teams and players that compete on football’s biggest stage.

FAQs about NFL Playoffs

The NFL playoffs are an elimination tournament held annually at the end of the National Football League (NFL) regular season. They consist of multiple games, with the winning teams advancing through each round until there are only two remaining teams. These final teams play in the Super Bowl to determine the league champion.

There are 14 teams that qualify for the playoffs, seven from each conference (AFC and NFC). The format for qualification is as follows: Each of the four division winners in the conference earns a spot, and then the next three teams with the best records are awarded Wild Card spots. The top-seeded team in each conference receives a first-round bye, leaving the other six to compete in three Wild Card games.

The Wild Card games are played between the lowest-seeded division winners and the Wild Card teams. The winners of these games advance to the Divisional Round, where they face the higher-seeded teams. In this round, the teams play a single-elimination game against an opponent determined by seeding rules. The winners of the Divisional Round then advance to play in the Conference Championship games.

The winners of the Conference Championship games (one from AFC and one from NFC) advance to the much-anticipated Super Bowl, where the ultimate NFL champion is determined.

Some significant changes have occurred in the NFL playoffs over the years. For example, from the 2020 season onwards, the playoffs were expanded to include 14 teams (from the previous 12). Additionally, the overtime rules were updated for the 2023 season; in case of a tie after four 15-minute quarters, the game proceeds to a 15-minute overtime period to determine the winner.

The playoffs are an exciting and fierce battle among the best teams in the NFL, showcasing high-stakes action and memorable moments. They serve as a thrilling culmination to the football season and keep fans on the edge of their seats throughout the tournament.