NFL Playoffs Explained

With ever changing rules and tiebreakers even the most savvy football fans need the nuances of the NFL Playoffs explained to them from time to time. The Playoffs are a single-elimination tournament to determine the NFL champion. The playoffs are constantly evolving as the NFL looks for ways to maximize its broadcast revenues, and they are set to underdo another change in 2020 after the ratification of the league’s newest collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The CBA stipulates that one new wild card team be added from each conference. Now, instead of the top two seeds in each conference getting a bye, only the top seed would receive a bye, and six teams from each conference would play a game in the Wild Card round. A total of 14 teams will make the playoffs in 2020, seven each from both the NFL and AFC.

The playoffs have come a long way since the first NFL championships were determined simply by winning percentage—an arrangement that caused numerous problems. The 1932 Green Bay Packers, for example, ended the season with a 10-3-1 record but finished as runners-up to the Chicago Bears, who ended with a record of 7-1-6. From there, a two-division format was instituted where the top team from each division would play in a special championship game. Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1966, more games and teams have slowly been introduced to the playoff format. This newest iteration is just another example of that.

How NFL Playoff Seeding Works

The top four seeds for each conference go to the winners of the NFL’s eight divisions. These four teams are ordered based on their number of wins. The top-seeded team will be the team with the best overall record, while the fourth seed will go to the division winner with the worst record. Ties are determined by an extensive list of tiebreakers. After the top four seeds are set, the next three seeds are referred to as “wild card” teams. Wild card spots go to the three non-division winners with the best overall record from each conference. Here’s how the 14-team playoff would have been seeded in 2019:

  1. Baltimore Ravens (14-2) – AFC North Champions
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-2) – AFC West Champions
  3. New England Patriots (12-2) – AFC East Champions
  4. Houston Texans (10-6) – AFC South Champion
  5. Buffalo Bills (10-6) – Wild Card #1
  6. Tennessee Titans (9-7) – Wild Card #2
  7. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8) – Wild Card #3
  1. Baltimore Ravens (14-2) – AFC North Champions
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-2) – AFC West Champions
  3. New England Patriots (12-2) – AFC East Champions
  4. Houston Texans (10-6) – AFC South Champions
  5. Buffalo Bills (10-6) – Wild Card #1
  6. Tennessee Titans (9-7) – Wild Card #2
  7. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8) – Wild Card #3

This system presents some obvious flaws—mainly the fact that teams in mediocre divisions can get a first-round home game with an average record. Two teams in the past have even won their divisions with losing records (the 2014 Panthers and the 2010 Seahawks). There has been talk recently of removing seed protections for division winners and seeding all seven teams based on record, but nothing has come of it yet.

How NFL Playoffs Work

Getting the NFL Playoffs explained will require understanding three distinct rounds. Each round presents teams with a single-elimination game they must win to progress to the next round, with the final round being the Super Bowl. In every round prior to the Super Bowl, the bracket is set up so that the highest seeded teams host the lowest seeded teams.

Wild Card Weekend – The first and busiest round of the NFL Playoffs, featuring six total games and 12 teams. Under the new format, the Wild Card round will now involve every team except for the top seed in each conference. Here’s what the new Wild Card format would look like using 2019 standings:

  • (7) Pittsburgh Steelers at (2) Kansas City Chiefs
  • (6) Tennessee Titans at (3) New England Patriots
  • (5) Buffalo Bills at (4) Houston Texans
  • (7) Los Angeles Rams at (2) Green Bay Packers
  • (6) Minnesota Vikings at (3) New Orleans Saints
  • (5) Seattle Seahawks at (4) Philadelphia Eagles

Divisional Round – Wild Card winners advance to the Divisional Round. The Divisional Round was named in a time where only division winners made the playoffs, but the name stuck even after wild card teams were incorporated in. The Divisional Round is also the first round in which the top seed will play. Here’s how the divisional round will look for both conferences in 2020:

  • Game 1 – (5-seed vs. 4-seed winner) at (1-seed)
  • Game 2 – (6-seed vs. 3-seed winner) vs. (7-seed vs. 2-seed winner) – Higher seed always hosts

Conference Championships – Divisional Round winners advance to their respective conference championships. There are two conference championship games—one for the AFC and one for the NFC—to determine which team will represent each conference in the Super Bowl. The conference championship round is also the final round in which home-field advantage plays a role.

How The NFL Playoff Results Affect The NFL Draft

The first 18 (formerly 20) picks of the NFL Draft are determined in reverse order of record (i.e., the team with the worst record gets the first pick, the team with the second worst record gets the second pick and so on). But the draft order for the 14 NFL playoff teams is determined by playoff performance rather than regular season record. Teams that lose in earlier rounds receive higher draft picks.

  • Picks 19-24 go to the six teams that lost in the Wild Card round in reverse order of regular season record.
  • Picks 25-28 go to the four teams that lost in the Divisional Round in reverse order of regular season record.
  • Picks 29-30 go to Conference Championship game losers in reverse order of regular season record.
  • Pick 31 goes to the Super Bowl runner-up.
  • Pick 32 goes to the Super Bowl winning team.

NFL Playoff Betting Tips

With the NFL Playoffs explained, you may be inclined to lay some dollars on the new version of them in 2020. Betting on the NFL Playoffs is extremely popular. Even with fewer games to bet on, sportsbooks generally see similar betting handles during the playoffs as they do during the regular season. For most people, betting is simply a way to create stakes for the playoffs, but if you want to win serious money, it is imperative that you bet smart. Here are a few tips for making the smartest possible bets:

Bet With Your Head, Not Your Heart

This is easily the most important tenet for bettors. If you want to consistently win money betting on the NFL Playoffs (or anything), you have to remove personal bias from the equation. You must play the odds, even if they don’t align with your own rooting interests. Your sheer hatred for a successful team or player won’t suddenly make them bad at football.

Focus On The Body Of Work

Don’t overvalue any one individual performance. If a team has been winning and dominating consistently, you can probably disregard a game or two where they fell flat. One good stat to represent body of work is point differential. Point differential represents overall performance over 960 minutes of football. You can also look at advanced metrics like Pro Football Reference’s Estimated W-L, ESPN’s Football Power Index, or Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

Don’t make broad assumptions based on statistical trends unless the data is significant. Network TV shows love to bring up stats that form a narrative (e.g., Team X has lost their last four home playoff games dating back to 1991). As a general rule, historical team performance means nothing. If it doesn’t directly relate to the players currently on the roster, disregard it. Don’t fall for a false narrative that is nothing more than regular statistical variance.

Higher Seeds Win More Often

Here is a seeding breakdown of every team that won the Super Bowl under the 12-team format:

  • 1 - 14
  • 2 - 8
  • 3 - 1
  • 4 - 4
  • 5 - 1
  • 6 – 2

As you can see, over the last 30 years of Super Bowl history, number one seeds have won nearly half (14/30) of the time, while top two seeds win over two-thirds (22/30) of the time. These numbers admittedly represent a small sample, but they’re consistent across eras. It isn’t as fun as betting on the underdog, but if you want to win money, bet on the favorites.

Teams Favored To Make The 2020 NFL Playoffs

Unsurprisingly, the list of teams favored to make the 2020 NFL Playoffs looks a lot like a list of teams that made the 2019 NFL Playoffs. It is difficult for most teams to completely change their outlook over the course of one offseason. But in 2020, a handful of teams did manage to do so. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ playoff stock, in particular, saw a meteoric rise after the team added Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in the offseason. The Indianapolis Colts saw a similar, if less extreme, rise after signing Philip Rivers and trading for DeForest Buckner.