How Do the NFL Playoffs Work? Explaining Format, Byes, Home-Field Advantage

The NFL playoffs comprise some of the most exciting times on the sports calendar. But how do the NFL playoffs work, and how is seeding decided?

December brings with it the holiday season and the “most wonderful time of the year.” But one could argue that December is simply a prelude to such a time, as Christmas trees, New Year’s celebrations, and the like are followed by one of the most exciting periods on the sports calendar: the NFL playoffs. How do the playoffs work, and what can fans expect when the 2023 NFL playoffs roll around?

How Many Teams Make the NFL Playoffs?

A total of 14 teams make the NFL playoffs. The 14 teams include seven from the American Football Conference (AFC) and seven from the National Football Conference (NFC). Each of the four division champions from the two conferences automatically earns a bid, followed by three Wild Card teams from each conference.

The three Wild Card spots in each conference are earned by the top three teams by record who did not win their respective divisions. To break ties between teams with equal records that are vying for a Wild Card spot, the NFL employs a set of tiebreaking procedures.

There are separate 12-step processes for breaking ties between two teams and ties between three or more teams. Only if the first 11 steps are exhausted does the NFL resort to a coin toss to decide which team makes the playoffs. Generally, ties are broken within the first five steps.

NFL Playoff Format and Bracket

Teams are seeded No. 1 through 7 in each conference, with the division winners receiving seeds Nos. 1 through 4, with the three Wild Card teams receiving seeds Nos. 5 through 7.

The division winners are seeded according to record, with the best record receiving the top seed, and the same is true of Wild Card teams. The league uses the same playoff tiebreaking procedures to break ties for seeds.

The NFL’s playoff bracket is divided between the AFC and NFC. There are four rounds: Wild Card Weekend, the Divisional Round, Conference Championship Weekend, and the Super Bowl.

MORE: NFL Overtime Rules — Regular Season vs. Playoff Rules

During Wild Card Weekend, the No. 2 seed faces the No. 7 seed, the No. 3 seed faces the No. 6 seed, and the No. 4 seed faces the No. 5 seed in each conference. In each subsequent round, the highest remaining seed faces the lowest remaining seed, and so on.

The No. 1 seed receives a first-round bye. In this format, the No. 7 seed, if they win on Wild Card Weekend, automatically goes to the top seed on the road. The same is said if the No. 6 seed wins and the No. 7 seed is eliminated.

In the Super Bowl, the winning teams from each conference face off to battle for the Lombardi Trophy.

How Many Teams Get a First-Round Bye?

Only one NFL team per conference gets a first-round bye. The No. 1 seed in each conference gets to take Wild Card Weekend off while the remaining six seeds start the playoff action. In the Divisional Round, the one seed plays the lowest remaining seed in the tournament.

For example, in 2022, the Kansas City Chiefs earned the No. 1 seed. This allowed them to take Wild Card Weekend off before beating the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Divisional Round. Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles were the top seed in the NFC and earned a first-round bye before hosting the sixth-seed New York Giants.

Which NFL Teams Get Home-Field Advantage?

In any given matchup, the higher-seeded team gets home-field advantage, while the lower-seeded team is the visitor. As such, all four division winners in each conference are guaranteed at least one game with home-field advantage. Meanwhile, the No. 1 seed is guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs prior to the Super Bowl.

MORE: List of Most Super Bowl Wins by Team

Using the 2022 Chiefs example above, as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, Kansas City was allotted home-field advantage and hosted the visiting Jaguars in the Divisional Round.

When Did the NFL Expand to 14 Teams?

The NFL expanded to a 14-team playoff format for the 2020 season. Previously, the league awarded playoff spots to each division winner and two additional Wild Card teams per conference (for a total of 12 teams).

For the 2020 season, the league added an additional Wild Card team per conference, bringing the total of playoff participants to 14 of the league’s 32 teams. This format eliminated the longtime 12-team playoff format, which had allowed the two best teams in the conference to be rewarded a first-round bye and a home game.

Want to predict the rest of the 2023 season with our FREE NFL Playoff Predictor? Looking for the most up-to-date NFL standings? What about a breakdown of team depth charts or the NFL schedule? Pro Football Network has you covered with that and more!

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast!

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Fantasy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review!

Join the Conversation!

Related Articles