The NFL playoff picture is beginning to take shape as contenders look to separate themselves from the pack with just eight weeks remaining in the regular season.
A total of 14 teams will qualify for the playoffs when all is said and done — seven apiece from the AFC and NFC, including each conference’s four division title winners, along with three Wild Card teams apiece.
The AFC North currently has three teams in playoff spots: the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns, while the Cincinnati Bengals sit just below the cutoff line because of a tiebreaker.
That raises an important question: Can all four teams from one division qualify for the postseason?
Can an Entire Division Make Playoffs?
Ever since the NFL expanded its playoff format to 14 teams in 2020, it has been theoretically possible for all four teams from a single division to make the playoffs.
The format only guarantees the four division title winners in each conference spots in the postseason, while the three next-best teams, regardless of division, make it from each conference. That allows for a division like the AFC North to have a chance at qualifying all four of its teams, depending on how everything shakes out.
That feat has not yet happened in the three seasons since the league’s playoff expansion, but there have been some close calls in each of the last three seasons.
Near Misses at Divisional Quartets
The AFC North had three teams make the playoffs in 2020, as the Steelers won the division at 12-4, and the Ravens and Browns both went 11-5. A rough 4-11-1 season for the Bengals kept them firmly out of the race, though.
The NFC West then came up one team short in 2021, as the Los Angeles Rams won the division at 12-5 while the Arizona Cardinals (11-6) and San Francisco 49ers (10-7) also qualified. The Seattle Seahawks finished 7-10 and two games behind the cutoff line.
The closest call yet came last year, when the Philadelphia Eagles (14-3), Dallas Cowboys (12-5), and New York Giants (9-7-1) each qualified for the playoffs from the NFC East. The Washington Commanders finished 8-8-1 — just behind the 9-8 Seattle Seahawks, who took the final playoff spot over the Detroit Lions (9-8).
Could It Finally Happen in 2023?
Although the feat has not yet been accomplished, it seems to be getting closer and closer every year.
Could this be the year it finally happens?
The AFC North certainly looks well-positioned to at least have a shot at getting all four of its teams into the postseason this year. The Bengals are currently tied with the Houston Texans for the AFC’s final playoff spot, but the Texans hold the spot via a head-to-head tiebreaker after last week’s win.
Still, Houston’s resurgence is no guarantee to continue for the remainder of the regular season.
The Bengals’ difficult schedule ahead could make a postseason berth difficult, though. On top of that, while the Ravens look like a near lock to make the playoffs at this point, the Browns just lost QB Deshaun Watson to a season-ending injury, and the Steelers have perhaps overachieved a bit, as their -26 point differential belies a different team than their 6-3 record.
No other division in the AFC is in a good position to qualify all four of its teams either, and no division in the NFC appears likely to have four teams in the hunt by season’s end.
Time will tell whether four teams from the same division qualify for the playoffs — either this year or in the near future. It does seem clear, though, that the chance to do so will be present for many years, at the very least, given recent history.