How Many Teams Make the NFL Playoffs
The NFL is one of the most popular sports leagues in the world. Despite its seemingly surging popularity, many casual fans don’t even know the basics. Ask someone, “How many NFL teams are there?” and you are likely to get a variety of answers (it’s 32, by the way).
The more important question is, “How many teams make the NFL playoffs?” After all, the two-month stretch that leads to the crowning of a Super Bowl champion is one of the most exciting in sports. Let’s get to know a little bit more about the playoff format, what it once looked like, and solve the question of how many teams make the NFL Playoffs.
So, how many teams make the NFL playoffs? The short answer is that there are 14 teams who make the playoffs in total. But that is a bit simplistic and doesn’t really paint the full picture. This is one of a few different playoff formats, but we’ll get into those later. It becomes clear how challenging it is to enter the NFL playoffs once you consider how many teams are in the NFL.
The four divisional winners in both the NFC and AFC make the playoffs. These teams sit atop the conference when it comes to seeding. The division champion with the best winning percentage captures the top seed in the conference, earning a bye in the wild card round. This proves crucial for many reasons, which are laid out below in the “home field advantage section.”
Division winners are also generally the biggest Super Bowl contenders. The San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, and Philadelphia Eagles are just a few of the division winners from a year ago. The two latter teams – the Chiefs and Eagles – captured the top seed in their respective conference. Having that break in the bracket proved integral for both as they moved on to become conference champions.
Wild Card Spots
After the four division champions, there are three wild card teams. In a rare occurrence, three teams from one division can make it to the playoffs. This year, the AFC East is expected to have three playoff-bound teams: the Bills, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets. These spots tend to feature down-to-the-wire races between several teams to fill the last one or two spots in the playoff bracket.
The wild card teams each play in a wild card game, battling the three division winners that did not capture the top seed. Division winners host the game, with fans enduring potentially freezing temperatures depending on the location and type of stadium the team employs. The wild card games are generally a chance for teams that were inconsistent throughout the year to get hot at the right time and make a run at arguably the greatest trophy in sports.
Breaking Down Seeding
Now that we’re familiar with how many teams make the NFL playoffs, it’s time to get a better understanding of the playoff format and seeding. We know that the top team in each conference gains a bye for having the best record among the division winners. The remaining teams play in the wild card round, facing each other for the opportunity to go on to the divisional round.
The playoff bracket order follows simple seeding rules. The second seed in each conference plays the seventh seed. The third seed plays the sixth seed, and the fourth seed takes on the fifth seed. Seeding is exclusively based on records, with tiebreakers coming in the form of head-to-head matchups. There are other secondary tiebreakers as well, but those are rarely needed.
As each round progresses, clubs are shifted based on seeding. For example, if the Baltimore Ravens lose as the third seed to the six-seed New York Jets, then the highest seed in the divisional round would play them. Each bracket thins out until one conference champion emerges, and both clubs face each other in the Super Bowl.
The competition for the top seed in each conference playoff bracket is critical. Many believe that landing the top seed was crucial for both the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles making their way to the Super Bowl. Good teams like the Cincinnati Bengals could then be forced to travel into hostile territory to face a higher seed later on in the playoffs.
We saw that with the Bengals last season. Then, the defending AFC Champions, the Bengals, were forced to go to Arrowhead Stadium to tangle with the Chiefs. There is no doubt that coaches and players get a little boost from being in front of the home crowd. While that may not have necessarily been the deciding factor, it no doubt played a role. The Bengals’ loss was a tight one, sending the Chiefs on and the Bengals home. Don’t overlook the importance of home-field advantage.
The current playoff format has only been in place since 2020. Before that, the playoffs looked very different for a multitude of reasons. When you stop to think, “How many teams are in the NFL?” we need to go back a long way, back to the time of the American Football League and the National Football League, which were two separate entities.
Since the 1960s, the NFL playoff format has gone through some major changes. Let’’ take a closer look at how things used to be at various points in the history of the NFL.
The most important point to start with is what has become known as “the merger.” For decades, the aforementioned American Football League and National Football Leagues were two completely separate leagues. Both featured franchises we know today – the Cleveland Browns were an AFL staple while the Chicago Bears were an NFL staple, for instance – playing completely separate from one another.
Beginning with the 1966 season, the AFL and NFL merged. What’s interesting, however, is that the first four Super Bowls – Super Bowl I-IV) were played as a matchup between the two leagues. The real change occurred in the 1970 season when the two organizations were turned into conferences, each operating under the National Football League banner.
The AFL became the American Football Conference, while its counterpart would be appropriately named the National Football Conference. Beginning with the 1970 season, the Super Bowl has featured a matchup between the champions of each respective conference.
What’s interesting about this incarnation of the playoff bracket is how seeding was determined. Back then, just eight teams – four from each conference – made the Super Bowl. Each bracket featured three division winners and a wild card entrant. Seeding for home games would alternate in the divisional round, with the division winners rotating in terms of who gets home-field advantage. This seeding was regardless of record, as evidenced by the Vikings hosting the Rams in 1974, even though both teams were 10-4 and the Rams beat the Vikings in the regular season.
By 1975, the current seeding format was introduced. Starting with that season, the higher seeds earned home games in the divisional round. Moving forward, the worst-ranked team would travel to the highest-ranked team in the conference championship game.
The Expansion to 16 Games
Another major change in the NFL playoff format came in 1978 as the regular season expanded from 14 games to 16. Even more importantly, another wild card team was added to the playoffs, making it a total of 10 teams getting into the playoffs. The two lowest seeds would play in a wild card game in each conference, moving into a four-team bracket in each conference from there.
The road to the Super Bowl had become just a bit tougher, and teams that landed the fifth seed had to win three rounds to get to the Super Bowl rather than two. But it would be just another change in the playoff structure, with more teams to be added in the coming seasons.
The previous NFL playoff format remained until the 1990 season. From there, the playoff field was expanded to 12 teams as two more wild card teams were added. This created an interesting scenario when it came to home-field advantage.
Under this format, which would last until the 2020 changes that saw a seventh team on each side of the bracket added, the top two seeds in each conference would receive a first-round bye. The lowest of the division winners – the third seed – would be “demoted” to the wild card round to host the lowest-seeded of the wild card teams.
A major change came in the 2002 season when the Houston Texans were added to the mix. The conferences were divided into four respective divisions, with eight in total. The format of the playoffs changed slightly as well. Instead of three wild card teams, the number was cut to two since there was now a fourth-division winner.
Using the same format as before, the top two seeds would earn a bye into the divisional round. The two lower seeds of the division winners would then host a wild card game. This format would stick with the league until the 2019 season, with the current 14-team format beginning in 2020.
There are a lot of unique facts surrounding the NFL playoffs. Given that the “modern era” has existed since 1966, there have been nearly 60 years of memorable moments and plays to account for. During that time, a few interesting facts and statistics have emerged.
The Most Appearances
It will likely shock no one to find out who is at the top of the list of NFL playoff appearances. Currently, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers are tied for the most playoff appearances in NFL history with 35 each. Not surprisingly, both franchises are near the top of the list when it comes to Super Bowl championships. The Packers have four, tying them for fifth all-time, while the Cowboys are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for third all-time.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are tied for the most Super Bowl wins with six, are just behind the duo with 33 playoff appearances. The team tied with the Steelers – the New England Patriots – have 28 playoff appearances, putting them on the fringe of the top 10.
The Most Host Cities
Perhaps the most interesting consideration when thinking about how many teams make the NFL playoffs is how many different franchises have played in multiple cities. There are nine NFL franchises that have called multiple cities home. For this exercise, we are looking only at the franchises with three different locations, so apologies to the Boston/New England Patriots, Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, Boston/Washington Redskins/Football Team/Commanders, and the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans.
There are three franchises on the list that have made their home in three different cities. The Cardinals made the playoffs 11 times while playing in Chicago, St. Louis, and its current home in Arizona. The Rams are very similar, having made 31 playoff appearances while in Cleveland, St. Louis, and currently Los Angeles.
But perhaps the poster child for relocation in the NFL has been the Raiders. One of the most revered franchises in the league, the Raiders have been around. They have made the postseason 23 times, winning a trio of Super Bowls in the process. They began in Oakland, moving to Los Angeles in the 1990s and returning to Oakland once again before ultimately becoming the Las Vegas Raiders just a few seasons ago.
Making the playoffs consistently is a lot tougher than it looks. The Patriots made the feat look easy, not only making the playoffs but winning a whopping 17 division championships from 2001 to 2021, including an incredible 11 in a row.
As it stands, the Chiefs are the current NFL iron men. They made the playoffs the last eight years, going back to the 2015 season. The Buffalo Bills are next, making the last four. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made the last three, but that streak is highly in question entering 2023. Four teams have made back-to-back playoffs (Eagles, 49ers, Cowboys, Bengals), while another seven made the playoffs in 2023 after previously missing.
Expert Conclusion: NFL Playoff Teams
In summary, the NFL’s current playoff format includes 14 teams, with both the NFC and AFC contributing seven teams each. This structure, in place since 2020, comprises four divisional winners and three wild card teams from each conference. Seeding plays a crucial role, especially for the top-seeded team in each conference, which earns a bye in the wild card round. While the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers lead in historical playoff appearances, the dynamic nature of the NFL means that roughly half of the playoff teams change from year to year. The complexity and competitiveness of this system make the road to the Super Bowl a challenging yet riveting journey.More info on Rowan Fisher-Shotton
In 2023, 14 teams make the NFL playoffs, with seven teams from each of the two conferences (NFC and AFC).
The NFL playoffs bracket consists of 14 teams in total, seven from the NFC and seven from the AFC.
In the current NFL playoff format, there are three wild card teams from each conference, making it a total of six wild card teams.
The Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers are tied for the most playoff appearances in NFL history, each with 35.
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Rowan is a sports betting journalist with an established presence in the sports media industry through his thought-invoking coverage and commentary surrounding major leagues like the NBA, NFL, and NCAA. While Rowan specializes in NBA, NFL, and NCAA college sports coverage, he consistently follows and reports on every major sport in North America.