NFL Playoff Tiebreakers: Rules and Procedures for Division, Wild Card Tiebreakers

How do the NFL playoff tiebreakers work? We dive into the loony bin of craziness and what-ifs of different clinching scenarios.

The race for the NFL postseason is reaching its conclusion, and with a number of teams still in the mix, the NFL playoff tiebreakers are very pertinent right now. The NFL has multiple playoff tiebreaking procedures based on whether they need to split a divisional or conference tie and depending on whether there are two or three teams involved.

Let’s take a look at the NFL’s tiebreaking procedures in different scenarios.

Explaining the NFL Playoff Tiebreakers

There are a number of factors involved when it comes to breaking NFL ties. The most commonly used NFL tiebreakers are the head-to-head record between the teams that are tied or their record within their division or conference. However, the two team’s records against common opponents have also come into play in recent weeks.

It is not common for tiebreakers based on elements such as Strength of Victory or Strength of Schedule to be used, but they occasionally come into play.

Beyond that, some of the rarely used tiebreakers relate to the points scored, points allowed, and touchdowns scored. In the extremely rare event of two NFL teams remaining tied following multiple playoff tiebreakers, a coin toss is used to separate teams.

How Do NFL Playoff Tiebreakers Work?

The NFL breaks down its tiebreaker procedures for the playoffs into division and conference ties. In the event of a tie involving a combination of teams from within a division and outside a division, the divisional ties are broken first. The highest-ranking team from the division remains, and the tie within the conference is then broken.

MORE: PFN’s FREE NFL Playoff Predictor

Once that team within the division has been removed from the tiebreaker, the next highest-ranked team in the division can be included in future tiebreakers.

Divisional Tiebreakers

We have seen multiple occurrences of two or more teams needing to have ties broken to decide their division standings in recent years. What order of tiebreakers does the NFL use to decide their divisional standings?

In all instances where win percentage is applied, a tie counts as half a win and a half loss for calculating the percentage of wins a team has.

Breaking a Tie Between Two Divisional Teams

  1. Head-to-head record.
  2. Best win percentage in games played within the division.
  3. Best win percentage in common games.
  4. Best win percentage in games played within the conference.
  5. Strength of victory.
  6. Strength of schedule.
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
  8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
  9. Best net points in common games.
  10. Best net points in all games.
  11. Best net touchdowns in all games.
  12. Coin toss.

Breaking a Tie Between Three or More Divisional Teams

In a three-team tiebreaker, the goal is to isolate one team at a time. That could be to isolate the best or worst team in the tiebreaker. Once one team is isolated, then the tiebreaker restarts from Step 1 using the remaining teams.

The order of tiebreakers is the same whether two, three, or four teams are tied in the division. The difference is that all three teams must be compared at each step in a three-team tiebreaker.

NFL Tiebreakers for Conference Ties

In the event of a tie in the standings of either the AFC or NFC, there are a couple of factors that come into play. Firstly, any teams from the same division are separated using the procedures above, and then teams from different divisions are split using the following steps.

Breaking a Tie Between Two Teams

  1. Head-to-head, if applicable.
  2. Best win percentage in games played within the conference.
  3. Best win percentage in common games (minimum of four games).
  4. Strength of victory.
  5. Strength of schedule.
  6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
  7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
  8. Best net points in conference games.
  9. Best net points in all games.
  10. Best net touchdowns in all games.
  11. Coin toss.

Breaking a Tie Between Three or More Teams

The following tiebreakers are applied in the event of a tie between three or more NFL teams for a Wild Card spot. If after any of the following steps are enacted, two teams remain tied, then the tiebreaker procedure reverts to Step 1 of the two-club tiebreaker above.

  1. Apply division tiebreaker to eliminate all but the highest-ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to Step 2. The original seeding within a division upon application of the division tiebreaker remains the same for all subsequent applications of the procedure that are necessary to identify the two Wild Card participants.
  2. Head-to-head sweep. (Applicable only if one club has defeated each of the others or if one club has lost to each of the others.)
  3. Best win percentage in games played within the conference.
  4. Best win percentage in common games (minimum of four games).
  5. Strength of victory.
  6. Strength of schedule.
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
  8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
  9. Best net points in conference games.
  10. Best net points in all games.
  11. Best net touchdowns in all games.
  12. Coin toss.

Where multiple teams are tied, each spot in the standings is individually assessed. For example, if four teams are tied for the fifth spot in the standings, ties are broken until the top team remains.

They are then ranked fifth, and the tiebreaking procedure restarts with the remaining three teams to determine who is sixth in the standings. Then, the final tie is broken to determine the seventh and eighth spots.

Additional NFL Playoff Tiebreakers

  1. Only one club advances at any stage of a tiebreaking procedure. The remaining clubs are then assessed from Step 1 of the applicable tiebreak procedure.
  2. When records against common opponents are considered, the win percentage is the deciding factor as opposed to the number of wins. This is because some teams may face a common opponent twice. For example, if the Texans and Ravens are tied with the Colts as a common opponent, the Texans would have played them twice, compared to once for the Ravens.
  3. In order to determine home-field priority among division winners, apply Wild Card tiebreakers.
  4. In order to determine home-field priority for Wild Card seeding and spots, division tiebreakers are applied if teams are from the same division. Wild Card tiebreakers are applied if teams are from different divisions.
  5. To determine the best-combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed, add a team’s position in the two categories, and the lowest score wins. For example, if Team A is first in points scored and second in points allowed, its combined ranking is “3.” If Team B is third in points scored and first in points allowed, its combined ranking is “4.” Team A then wins the tiebreaker.

If two teams are tied for a position, both teams are awarded the ranking as if they held it solely. For example, if Team A and Team B are tied for first in points scored, each team is assigned a ranking of “1” in that category, and if Team C is third, its ranking will still be “3.”

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