How Does NFL Wild-Card Work?

Last Updated on October 31, 2023 by Alex PT

The NFL Wild Card playoff format features three wild-card teams from each conference. They face the division winners in single-elimination games. The top seed in each conference gets a bye, and the others play, creating a 14-team playoff system in the NFL.

How Does the NFL Wild Card Work?

This table comprises the present and old wild-card systems. 

Present Wild-Card System Old Wild-Card System 
The four division champions from each conference (the team in each division with the greatest overall listing ) are seeded 1 through 4 based on their general won-lost-tied recordThe NFL expanded to 16 teams and divide both conventions into two divisions each, together with four teams in each division.
Three wild-card qualifiers from each convention (the 3 teams with the greatest total record of remaining teams at the conference ) are seeded 6, 5, and 7The four division winners would progress to the NFL playoffs and also to stay on program, a tie-breaker program has been released.

In the divisional round, in addition, there are four games.  Even the first-seed divisional winner performs with the lowest remaining seed in the wild-card round.  Even the second-seed divisional winner plays with the other remaining team in the wild-card round.

Both divisional round winners in each conference play in the AFC and NFC Conference Championships.  Afterward, both conference champions match at the Super Bowl to ascertain that the NFL champion.

One trouble with this setup is a winning record does not guarantee staff will be eligible for the playoffs.  Consequently, if the best two teams at a conference are in precisely the identical division, they might wind up regretting five and one.  Afterward, they can play each other in the divisional round, knocking out one of the very best teams first in the playoffs.

Plus team that wins a weak division advances to the playoffs if it does not possess a winning record.  Those teams gain from only being at the very top of a bad team.

Stronger wild-card teams from different divisions are seeded lower compared to the feeble division winners even when they have greater regular-season records.  CBS Sports points out it’s occurring now; a team that has won over half of its games is now contributing to its division.

At this publication, the Dallas Cowboys leads the NFC East with a 6-7 record.  Even the wild-card teams, to be seeded sixth and fifth, will probably have better listings.  It is likewise feasible to get a winning team in a solid division to never make the playoffs in any way.

The NFL playoffs can eventually be more rigorous with a few changes, such as adding more teams in the playoffs along with altering how seeding functions.  1 idea involves incorporating more teams, maybe 14, into the playoffs.

In case 14 teams competed at the playoffs, clarifies Bleacher Report and the second-seed team would probably not get a bye through the first week.  Rather, this team would play with the seventh-seed team throughout the wild-card round.

An enlarged postseason is presently being discussed as a member of the NFL and NFLPA discussions for a new collective bargaining agreement, together with an enlarged regular season and decreased preseason.

Another notion is that teas may be reseeded depending on their listings before the playoffs.  Using a switch into the seeding, distinct teams could be allowed a bye week throughout the wild-card round.  But, ESPN states the notion of altering the seeding “is becoming zero steam” in the NFL.

How Many Wild Card Teams Are in the NFL?

There are a total of 6 Wild Card teams in the NFL, three in each conference. They are the teams that finished with the second, third, and fourth best records in each conference, but did not win their division. The Wild Card teams play in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs, which is the first round of the playoffs. The winners of the Wild Card round advance to the Divisional round of the playoffs.

The Wild Card round was introduced in 1978, when the NFL expanded to 28 teams. Prior to that, only the division winners made the playoffs. The addition of the Wild Card round meant that more teams had a chance to compete for the Super Bowl, and it also made the playoffs more exciting.

The Wild Card round has produced some of the most memorable moments in NFL history. For example, in 1981, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 in a game that is known as “The Catch.” The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl that year.

In 1993, the Houston Oilers defeated the Buffalo Bills 38-41 in a game that is known as “The Comeback.” The Bills were leading 35-3 at halftime, but the Oilers scored 25 unanswered points in the second half to win the game.

The Wild Card round is always a thrilling time of year for NFL fans. It is a chance for teams to make a statement and to prove that they are worthy of a spot in the playoffs. The Wild Card round has produced some of the most memorable moments in NFL history, and it is sure to produce more excitement in the years to come.

Here are some of the benefits of having Wild Card teams in the NFL playoffs:

  • It gives more teams a chance to compete for the Super Bowl.
  • It makes the playoffs more exciting and unpredictable.
  • It allows fans of teams that did not win their division to still have something to cheer for in the playoffs.
  • It generates more revenue for the NFL.

Background Of The NFL Playoffs 

From the league’s founding in 1920 until 1932, there wasn’t any scheduled championship match.  By 1920–1923, the tournament was given to a team with a vote of team owners in the yearly owners’ meeting.  By 1924–1932, the team with the highest winning percentage had been granted the tournament (the de facto standard owners were using anyhow ).  As every team played a different variety of games, only counting losses and wins could have been inadequate.  Furthermore, tie games weren’t counted in the standings in discovering the winning percentage (under modern principles, ties rely on 1/2 triumph and 1/2 reduction ).  There has been also a head-to-head tiebreaker, that likewise was weighted towards the conclusion of the year: for 2 teams who played each other two, each winning after, the team winning the next match was ascertained to be the winner (the standards used to pick the 1921 title ).

Back in 1932, the Chicago Bears (6–1–6) along with the Portsmouth Spartans (6–1–4) were attached at the close of the season together using precisely the same winning percent of .857 (the Green Bay Packers (10–3–1) had more wins, however, also a lower winning percentage (.769) as calculated under the rules of this afternoon, that borrows twists ).  An extra match was consequently needed to ascertain a winner.  It had been agreed that the match could be performed in Chicago at Wrigley Field, however intense winter weather and dread of a minimal turnout forced the match to be moved inside to Chicago Stadium. 

The match was played under modified guidelines in an 80-yard dirt area, along the Bears won with a last rating of 9–0. As a consequence of the match, the Bears had a far much greater winning percentage (0.875) and won the team title.  The reduction gave the Spartans a closing winning percentage of .750, also transferred to the third position behind the Packers.  Even though there’s no consensus that this match was a true “championship” game (or just a playoff match ), it created considerable attention and contributed to the development of this NFL Championship Game in 1933.

Given the fascination with this “championship game”, and also the need for the league to produce a more equitable way of determining a winner the league split into two parties starting in 1933.  The champions of each conference (the very first place teams at the conventions ) fulfilled from the NFL Championship Game following this season.  There wasn’t any tie-breaker system set up; some ties at the final standings of the conference caused a playoff match to be played in 1941, 1943, and 1947, two matches in 1950, and yet each in 1952, 1957, 1958, and 1965.  Since the date and venue of the championship match proved usually not known before the final match of this season was played these playoff games occasionally led to delaying the conclusion of the year by one week.

The playoff structure utilized from 1933 to 1966 was believed inequitable by some due to the number of times it didn’t match the teams using the two best records in the championship match, as just the conference winners would qualify for playoff contention.  Four times between 1950 and 1966 (in 1951, 1956, 1960, and 1963) the team using the second-best win-loss record did not qualify for the playoffs although the team with the best record from another summit, but just the third-best from the league, could advance to the championship match.

For Your 1967 NFL year, the NFL expanded to 16 teams and divided both conventions into two divisions each, together with four teams in each division.  The four division winners would progress to the NFL playoffs and also to stay on program, a tie-breaker program has been released.  The very first round of playoffs decided the conference’s winner and its representative at the NFL Championship Game, performed the next week. Therefore, 1967 was the very first time that there was a scheduled playoff championship to ascertain the teams to perform in the NFL Championship. 

Throughout the 3 decades (1967—- 69) this playoff structure has been in consequence, there was only just usage of this tie-breaker system.  Back in 1967, the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Colts finished the year tied at 11–1–two for its lead in the Coastal Division.  The Colts came to the last match of the year but had been conquered by the Rams.  Even though the Colts shared exactly the ideal win/loss record from the NFL this year, they didn’t progress to the playoffs although three additional teams with worse records obtained their divisions.  This occasion contributed to the decision from 1970 to incorporate a wild-card team in the championship following the AFL–NFL merger.

Throughout the 1960s, a third-place playoff match has been played in Miami, known as the Playoff Bowl.  It had been contested in early January after the 1960–69 seasons.  Although official playoff games in the time that they had been played the NFL currently formally classifies those ten matches (and figures ) as exhibitions,  much less playoff games.

Present Wild-Card System 

The 32-team National Football League has been split into two conferences, the AFC and NFC, together with all 16 teams every day.  Since 2002, every conference has further split into four divisions of four teams each year.  Qualification to the playoffs functions as follows:

1. The four division champions from each conference (the team in each division with the greatest overall listing ) are seeded 1 through 4 based on their general won-lost-tied record.

2. Three wild-card qualifiers from each convention (the 3 teams with the greatest total record of remaining teams at the conference ) are seeded 6, 5, and 7.

If teams are tied (using the exact regular season won-lost-tied listing ), the playoff seeding is dependent on means of a pair of tie-breaking principles.

The titles of their first two playoff rounds date back to the postseason format which was first utilized in 1978, once the league included a 2nd wild-card team to every conference.  The very first round of the playoffs will be called the wild-card round (or even wild-card weekend).  In this round, the second-seeded division winner hosts the seventh-seeded wild card, even though the third hosts the sixth, along with the fourth largest hosts the fifth. 

There are not any limitations regarding teams in precisely exactly the identical division fitting up in any round.  The best seed from every convention receives a bye in the initial round, which advances them into the third round.  The third round is called the divisional round.  The very best seed hosts that the lowest-seeded occupying seed by the very first round (seed 5, 4, 6, 5 or 2 ), along with another two winners out of the wild-card round play each other together using the greater seed using home-field advantage. The two surviving teams from each conference’s divisional-round playoff games subsequently match in the various NFC and AFC Conference Championship games(hosted by the higher seed). 

The winners of these competitions go on to confront yet another in the Super Bowl that is played on a pre-determined impartial website.

One drawback to the machine is that the teams using the two greatest records in a conference can play each other before the conference championship if they’re in exactly the same division.  The greater team will be #1, although the lower team could be #5 because the top-rated wild-card team and shown in the diagram, then it’s feasible for your #1 division winner to play with the very best-rated wild-card team at the divisional round.  Another drawback is that the division team may have a better impact than their regular-season record. 

By way of instance, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7–9 record and hosted a playoff match, although the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers missed the playoffs that year despite heading 10–6 along with also beating Seattle from the regular year by enormous margins (the present format that enlarged the playoffs out of six to seven teams each conference helps mitigate the dilemma to some level because the New York Giants could have made the playoffs at 2010 since the number 1 seed). 

The New York Jets and New York Giants have shared the same home arena since 1984 (MetLife Stadium because 2010, along with Giants Stadium from 1984 to 2009).  Therefore, if the two teams will need to host playoff games over precisely exactly the identical weekend, then they must play on different days during the Conference Championship round as soon as the two games are generally scheduled at exactly the identical moment.  The only time this type of scheduling conflict happened was during Wild Card weekend in 1985 when there were still just two wild-card games and just 10 teams qualified for the postseason.  Rather than playing Wild Card games around precisely exactly the identical day, as had been the case once the 10-team strategy was being used from 1978 to 1989, the Brackets hosted their match Saturday, December 28, before the Giants hosted their match Sunday, December 29.  The identical scheduling conflict could happen for the Los Angeles Rams and also Los Angeles Chargers, who will start sharing SoFi Stadium in 2020.


We’ve concluded this article. We hope you now know how the NFL wild card works. Also, we hope you are now familiar with some history of the NFL playoffs.


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