How many NFL teams make the playoffs in the 32-team NFL divided into two conferences?

The National Football League (NFL) season culminates in a thrilling postseason battle, where only the best of the best contend for the coveted Lombardi Trophy. But before the confetti rains down and the chants of “Super Bowl!” echo through the stadium, a crucial question begs an answer: how many teams make the playoffs?

Fear not, football fanatics! Buckle up as we delve into the intricacies of the NFL playoff format, dissecting the number of contenders and the fierce competition that awaits them.

How many NFL teams make the playoffs
How many NFL teams make the playoffs

From Regular Season Chaos to Postseason Order

The NFL, consisting of 32 teams, is split into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Each conference plays a 17-game regular season, where teams vie for divisional dominance and wild-card berths.

But here’s the twist: seven teams from each conference, not eight, earn the coveted playoff spots. That’s right, 14 teams in total embark on the postseason journey.

NFL Playoff Teams

ConferenceDivision WinnersWild Card TeamsTotal Teams
AFC 4 3 7
NFC4 3 7
Total8 614

This table summarizes the key points:

  • Each conference (AFC and NFC) has 4 division winners who automatically secure playoff spots.
  • Each conference has an additional 3 wild card teams based on best overall records, bringing the total to 7 teams per conference.
  • In total, 14 teams across both conferences participate in the NFL playoffs.

How Does the Playoff Bracket Work?

The NFL playoffs use a single-elimination tournament format with two separate brackets for the AFC and NFC conferences. Within each bracket, here’s how the competition unfolds:

  1. Seeding:
  • After the regular season concludes, the top four teams in each conference with the best win-loss records become division champions and earn the top four seeds (1-4) in their respective conferences.
  • The remaining three playoff spots in each conference go to the wild-card teams with the best win-loss records outside of the division winners. These teams receive seeds #5, #6, and #7.
  1. First Round (Wild Card Round):
  • The #2 seed plays the #7 seed, and the #3 seed plays the #6 seed in each conference.
  • The higher-seeded teams in each matchup have home-field advantage.
  • The #1 seed (division winner with the best record) in each conference receives a bye and automatically advances to the second round.
  1. Second Round (Divisional Round):
  • The winners of the wild-card games join the #1 seed from each conference.
  • The #1 seed plays the lowest remaining seed (#7 or winner of #6 vs. #7), and the #2 seed plays the next highest remaining seed (#5 or winner of #5 vs. #6).
  • The higher-seeded teams maintain home-field advantage.
  1. Third Round (Conference Championships):
  • The winners of the divisional round games in each conference face off.
  • The team with the higher seed remains at home.
  • This round determines the AFC and NFC Champions who will compete in the Super Bowl.
  1. Super Bowl:
  • The AFC Champion and the NFC Champion play in a neutral location to determine the NFL champion.

How many rounds are in the NFL Playoffs?

The NFL Playoffs, which just concluded with Super Bowl LVIII on February 11, 2024, actually have 4 rounds, although one could argue for 5:

  • Wild Card Round: This is the first round, featuring six games with the #2 vs #7, #3 vs #6 seeds in each conference.
  • Divisional Round: This round sees the four winners from the Wild Card Round join the #1 seeds from each conference, who received a bye. Here, #1 faces the lowest remaining seed and #2 faces the next highest.
  • Conference Championship Round: The winners of the Divisional Round in each conference battle it out to determine the AFC and NFC Champions.
  • Super Bowl: This is the showdown between the AFC and NFC Champions to determine the NFL champion.

Will the NFL playoffs have re-seeding?

No, the NFL playoffs do not have reseeding. This means that the seeds assigned to teams based on their regular-season records remain fixed throughout the entire playoffs.

Here’s how it works:

  • After the regular season, the top four teams in each conference with the best records become division champions and earn the top four seeds (1-4).
  • The remaining three playoff spots go to the wild card teams with the best records outside of the division winners, receiving seeds #5, #6, and #7.
  • Once these seeds are set, they do not change.

Instead of reseeding, the playoffs follow a single-elimination bracket system within each conference:

  • In the Wild Card Round, higher-seeded teams play lower-seeded teams: #2 vs. #7, #3 vs. #6.
  • Winners advance to the Divisional Round, where they are joined by the #1 seeds (division winners with byes). Matchups are based on remaining seedings: #1 plays the lowest remaining seed, #2 plays the next highest, etc.
  • The Conference Championships pit the winners of the Divisional Round against each other.
  • The Super Bowl features the champions of each conference.

Benefits of no reseeding:

  • Provides predictability and clarity around team matchups.
  • Rewards regular-season performance with higher seeds and potential byes.
  • Adds an element of strategy and motivation for teams to strive for better records.

Alternatives to reseeding:

  • Some fans argue for reseeding after each round, similar to other sports like the NBA and NHL. This could create more dynamic matchups and potentially increase unpredictability.
  • However, the NFL has stuck with their current format, valuing the reward for strong regular-season performance and the simplicity of a fixed bracket system.

Division Champions

The initial four playoff slots are reserved for the division champions. Each conference consists of four divisions, and the team with the best record within a division automatically clinches a playoff berth. Think of them as the regional kings, having conquered their local rivals.

Wild Card Warriors

The remaining three playoff spots in each conference are up for grabs for the wild-card teams. These are the non-division winners with the best overall records within their respective conferences. Imagine them as skilled warriors, fighting their way through a different path to claim their playoff glory.


In the NFL’s competitive landscape, ties aren’t uncommon. So, what happens when multiple teams have the same record and vie for a coveted playoff spot? Don’t worry, the league has a sophisticated tiebreaking system in place, considering factors like head-to-head matchups, win percentage within the division, strength of schedule, and more. It’s like a complex algorithm ensuring only the most deserving teams advance.

Ranking the Contenders

Once the 14 playoff participants are determined, they’re seeded based on their regular-season records. The team with the best record in each conference earns the coveted #1 seed, while the remaining teams are ranked #2 through #7. Think of it as a pecking order, with higher seeds enjoying certain advantages, like home-field advantage and potential byes in the early rounds.

A Knockout Tournament

The NFL playoffs follow a single-elimination format, similar to a gladiator arena. The #1 and #2 seeds in each conference receive a bye in the first round, while the remaining #3-#7 seeds battle it out in the Wild Card Round. Imagine these matchups as intense duels, where only the victors progress.

The winners of the Wild Card Round then face the higher-seeded teams in the Divisional Round. The stakes escalate further, with only four teams remaining in the hunt for the Super Bowl.

The Championship Round witnesses the conference champions clash, leaving only two warriors standing. Finally, the grand stage of the Super Bowl awaits, where the AFC and NFC champions duel for ultimate NFL supremacy.

Understanding the Significance

The number of playoff teams (14) might seem arbitrary, but it serves a strategic purpose. It expands the postseason picture, allowing more teams to showcase their talent and increasing fan engagement. This wider net also injects unpredictability, as lower-seeded teams can potentially upset the higher-ranked favorites, adding a dramatic element to the entire playoff narrative.

Remember, the NFL is constantly evolving, and future adjustments to the playoff format are not out of the question. Who knows, the number of teams battling for the Lombardi Trophy might change again, adding another layer of intrigue to this already captivating competition.


While understanding the mechanics of “how many teams make the playoffs” is crucial, it’s simply the starting point. The true essence lies in the fierce competition, the unexpected upsets, and the collective breath held by millions of fans as their teams battle for gridiron glory.

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Can all teams in a division make the playoffs?

No, unfortunately. Only the team with the best record within its division secures a playoff spot. The remaining teams, even if they have strong records, need to compete for wild-card berths.

What happens if a team wins its division but has a worse record than a wild-card team?

The division winner still gets the higher seed, even if their record is inferior to a wild-card team. The reward for winning your division comes in the form of a better playoff positioning and potential home-field advantage.

How do ties get broken in the Wild Card race?

The NFL employs a complex tiebreaking system that considers various factors, including head-to-head matchups, win percentage within the division, strength of schedule, and more. These factors ensure fairer competition and minimize the element of chance when determining wild-card teams.

Have there ever been more than 14 teams in the playoffs?

No, 14 has been the standard format since the 2020 season. Prior to that, only 12 teams participated in the playoffs. Some fans speculate about potential future changes, but for now, 14 teams remain the magic number.

Is there any advantage to being a higher seed in the playoffs?

Absolutely! Higher seeds enjoy several advantages, including home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, potential byes in the early rounds, and generally facing lower-seeded teams in earlier matchups. These advantages increase their chances of advancing deeper into the playoffs

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