NFL Wild Card Rules


Since its inception as part of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the wild card has been just that. It has gone from one team to three teams to the current two in each conference who receive wild card berths in the NFL playoffs. With increased parity in the league, the last day of the final season has often become a wild scramble to see which teams fill those last two postseason spots, and who gets the spots opposite them. A crazy tiebreaking procedure only adds intrigue to one of the more suspenseful parts of the football season.

The Basics

  • The NFL expanded its postseason field to 12 teams in 1990, and despite subsequent realignment and expansion, it has maintained that limit. Those 12 spots go to the eight division winners and four wild cards. The wild cards -- two from both the AFC and NFC -- are earned by non-division champs with the next two best records.

Postseason Seeding

  • In each conference, the division winners get the first through fourth seeds. The two wild card teams are seeded fifth and sixth, with the team posting a better record getting the fifth seed. The top two seeds in each conference get a bye through the first round, or as its known in the NFL, Wild Card Weekend. The top wild card team, seeded fifth, plays the fourth seed, while the final wild card team plays the third seed. Since the higher seed always gets home field, wild cards often have to play on the road through the postseason. The only exception would be if both wild card teams reached the conference final, in which case the higher wild card -- the fifth seed -- would host.

Wild Card Tiebreakers Between Two Teams

  • In the event that two teams qualified to slot in a wild card spot finish with identical records, the NFL uses a lengthy tiebreaker procedure. In order, these are: head-to-head record; best record in intraconference games; best record against common opponents -- with a minimum four games required; strength of victory, which is the best combined record of teams defeated; strength of schedule, or best combined winning percentage of all opponents; best intraconference point differential; best total point differential; most intraconference points; most overall points; and most overall touchdowns. If the teams still can't be separated, a coin toss is used to decide the wild card berth. However, a coin toss has never been necessary.

Tiebreaker Between Multiple Teams

  • If there are three or more teams tied, the tiebreaker system is the same, but with one small qualifier used first -- if two or more of the teams are from the same division, then the division tiebreaker is used to eliminate all but the top wild-card-eligible team from that division. For example, if Pittsburgh, Baltimore and San Diego were all tied for the last wild card spot, then either Pittsburgh or Baltimore would have to first be eliminated since they are both from the AFC North. Then the two-team tiebreaker would be used to separate San Diego and the survivor from the other two teams. The first tiebreaker in a division tiebreaker beyond the head-to-head record is the best intradivisional record. Following that, it goes by record against common opponents, intraconference record and then the remaining steps used in a wild card tiebreaker.

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