No game in the NFL is easy to win. That is especially true in the playoffs when the season is on the line.
The NFL playoffs pit the best teams against each other in a single-elimination format, the only league to do that of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States. It is the peak of professional sports in the United States.
The winner of the playoffs, culminating in the Super Bowl, takes home the prestigious Vince Lombardi Trophy.
How many teams make the playoffs in the NFL? Who is most successful in the playoffs?
The NFL Playoffs: How Many Teams Participate?
There are 14 teams — seven from the NFC and seven from the AFC — that make the NFL playoffs each season. The remaining 18 teams that miss the playoffs get an early start to their off-season activities.
Each of the eight regular-season divisional winners automatically makes the playoffs. The remaining six slots are determined by record with both conferences getting three wild card spots.
The current format was first used in 2020. From 1990 until 2020, only 12 teams made the playoffs. All eight divisional champions made the playoffs with four total wild card teams.
Going back further, the AFL-NFL merger allowed the playoff expansion from four teams to eight teams. In 1978, the playoffs expanded to 10 games.
NFL Playoffs Format
Each team is seeded within its conference. The No. 1 seed always gets a first-round bye. The No. 2 seed will host No. 7, No. 3 will host No. 6, and No. 4 will host No. 5. The higher seed always hosts until the Super Bowl, which is played at a neutral venue.
There are a total of four rounds of playoff games. Round one is the wild card round, which is followed by the divisional round. Round three of the playoffs are the conference championships, with the winners facing off in the Super Bowl.
When are the NFL playoffs?
The NFL playoffs begin in January at the end of the regular season. The playoffs conclude with the Super Bowl in early February.
Learn all about the teams of the NFC North.
Do the best teams always make the playoffs?
This is sort of a trick question. Most of the great teams make the playoffs, but not all playoff teams are great.
Occasionally, some not-so-great teams do make the playoffs. This happened in 2020 when the sub-.500 Washington made the playoffs by winning the NFC East.
The wild card system does assist with allowing some better teams in if they do not win their division. The 7-9 Washington made the playoffs in the same year the 10-6 Miami Dolphins missed an AFC wild-card spot.
Who makes the NFL playoffs?
The NFL playoffs consist of 14 of the league’s 32 teams. All eight regular-season divisional champions automatically make the playoffs. Those teams are joined by the three best teams from each conference determined by record, taking the six total wild card spots.
How does NFL playoffs overtime work?
In the playoffs only, both teams are guaranteed an offensive possession.
Traditionally, overtime in the playoffs is the same as in the regular season, which only guarantees one team getting possession if the team in possession first scores a touchdown. That rule has now been changed for the postseason. Beginning in the 2023 playoffs, both teams will have the opportunity to have an offensive possession.
This decision was passed by the owners in a 29-3 vote at the annual meeting in March of 2022. It came after the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Buffalo Bills in a playoff game by scoring a touchdown on the first drive of overtime.
Overall, seven of 12 playoff games since 2010 were won on the first possession, denying a fair opportunity for the team that loses the overtime coin flip.
NFL Teams With the Most Playoff Wins
Here are the NFL teams that have won the most playoff games.
1.) New England Patriots — 37 wins
2.) Pittsburg Patriots — 36 wins
3.) Dallas Cowboys — 35 wins
4.) San Francisco 49ers — 34 wins
5.) Green Bay Packers — 33 wins
NFL Teams With Most Playoff Appearances (By Year)
1.) Green Bay Packers — 35
2.) Dallas Cowboys — 34
3.) Pittsburgh Steelers — 33
4.) New York Giants — 32
5.) Los Angeles Rams — 31
1.) Tom Brady — 35 wins (30 with New England; 5 with Tampa Bay)
2.) Adam Vinatieri — 21 wins (13 with New England; 8 with Indianapolis)
3.) Stephen Gostkowski — 20 wins (all with New England)
4.) Bill Romanowski — 19 wins (9 with San Francisco; 1 with Philadelphia; 7 with Denver; 2 with Oakland)
5.) Rob Gronkowski — 17 wins (12 with New England; 5 with Tampa Bay)
5.) Jerry Rice — 17 wins (14 with San Francisco; 3 with Oakland)
Greatest playoff games of all time
Here are some of the best NFL playoff games of all time.
Super Bowl LI: New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28 (OT)
The Super Bowl in 2017 was quite extraordinary as the Patriots mounted a 25-point comeback in the final 17 minutes of regulation. Falcons owner Arthur Blank had gone down to the field for the trophy presentation, only to be sent home on the losing side after the Patriots won it in overtime.
2001 AFC Divisional Playoff Game: New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13
With a spot in the AFC Championship on the line in heavy snowfall, Tom Brady and the Patriots got bailed out as Brady’s fumble was ruled an incomplete pass after review.
Had the call stood, it would have sealed a three-point Raiders win with 1 minute, 43 seconds remaining. Instead, the Patriots got an extra life that they used to tie the game 16-16 and kick the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Super Bowl XLII: New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
Eli Manning led the New York Giants on a game-winning drive to spoil New England’s perfect season in 2007. It was the conclusion of a remarkable playoff run for the wild-card Giants.
2022 AFC Divisional Round: Kansas City Chiefs 42, Buffalo Bills 36 (OT)
An epic battle between Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Allen and the Bills silenced Arrowhead Stadium with a go-ahead touchdown in the dying moments.
But 13 seconds was just enough time for Mahomes to orchestrate a drive to get the Chiefs within field goal range, where Harrison Butker nailed a 49-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Mahomes marched the Chiefs down the field for the game-winning touchdown on the opening drive of overtime.
Super Bowl XLIXI: New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24
Down 28-24, the Seahawks had over two minutes to drive for a touchdown. With just one yard to go, the Seahawks made the controversial play call to pass instead of handing it to Marshawn Lynch, one of the game’s most dominant running backs. That pass was intercepted as the Patriots took the Super Bowl.
NFL Playoff Fun Facts
1.) Only seven wild card teams have ever won the Super Bowl since the NFL added wild card teams in 1970. On the flip side, no wild card team has lost in the Super Bowl since the 2000 Tennessee Titans.
2.) Tony Romo (93.0) has a higher QBR than Tom Brady (90.4).
3.) Tom Brady and Brett Favre are the only quarterbacks to win a playoff game after turning 40. Brady has won 10 playoff games after his 40th birthday, alongside his two Super Bowl rings.
4.) The coldest game in playoff history was the 1967 NFL Championship game, where the Green Bay Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 in –13 degrees in front of an attendance of more than 50,000 at Lambeau Field.
5.) Producing five Super Bowl quarterbacks, the University of California has the record for most quarterbacks to play in a Super Bowl.
6.) The NFC currently has the edge over the AFC in Super Bowls, winning 29-27. The NFC East is the most successful division, with 13 Super Bowl wins among its four teams.
By Nathan Dunn
Nathan is a sportswriter based in Kansas City, Missouri.
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