NFL Playoff Tiebreakers: Rules and procedures to know

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 playoffs is heating up, and the tiebreakers the NFL uses to separate teams are coming into sharp focus. Let’s take a look at the NFL’s tiebreaking procedures in different scenarios.

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What are the NFL playoff tiebreakers?

There are several factors involved when it comes to breaking NFL ties. However, the most commonly used tiebreaker is the head-to-head record between the teams that are tied. Win percentage is also a commonly used procedure, be that within the division, the conference, or between common opponents.

There are a number of tiebreakers that are less commonly used, such as, strength of victory and strength of schedule. 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 has different tiebreaking procedures based on whether the tie is between divisional or non-divisional teams. In the event there is a combination of divisional and non-divisional teams tied, the tie between the divisional teams is resolved first. Once only the highest-ranking team from a division remains, the remaining ties can be broken accordingly.

How does the NFL break a tie within a division?

Division races can often come right down to the wire. Multiple teams can be in the race to win a division, but if two or more end up with the same record, how does the NFL decide who wins the division?

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

The following NFL playoff tiebreakers are applied in the event of three or more teams within a division being tied. If after any of the following steps are enacted, two teams remain tied, then the tiebreaking procedure reverts to step 1 of the two-club tiebreaker above.

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.

How does the NFL break ties when it comes to the Wild Card spots?

When it comes to NFL playoff tiebreakers for any ties for the Wild Card spots in either conference, two factors come into play. In the event the two teams are from the same division, then the divisional tiebreakers above are used. However, if they are from different divisions, the following steps are used.

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.

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.

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.

In the event of breaking ties to decide multiple Wild Card spots, each spot is assessed individually. For example, if four teams are tied on the same record to fill the three spots, the last team remaining in the initial tiebreaking procedure would be the fifth seed.

The remaining three teams would then be assessed without that team involved. Each time, the club remaining after the application of the tiebreaking procedures will fill the next highest available Wild Card seed.

What other NFL playoff tiebreakers are there?

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.”

Ben Rolfe is a Senior Managing Editor at Pro Football Network and is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can find him on Twitter @BenRolfePFN

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