We’ve arrived at the final quarter of the NFL regular season. Which means that in less than a month…the postseason will be here! Already!!! The regular season always flies by too quickly.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Just as a frame of reference, here are the various seasons within the NFL year:
August = Preseason (4 games that don’t count)
September – December = Regular Season (16 games that determine if you advance to the postseason)
January – February = Postseason (a single-elimination tournament (playoffs) culminating with the Super Bowl)
February – July = Offseason (a painful, dull time of year in which much ado is made about lots of nothing)
The postseason is the season that happens after the regular season, more commonly known as the time when playoffs and the Super Bowl happen. We all know that the best teams are the ones that play in the Super Bowl, but how do they get there?
It all boils down to what happened in the regular season and how teams stack up against other teams within their division and conference. In the NFL, there are two conferences, the NFC and the AFC. There are four divisions within each conference and four teams in each division (resulting in 32 teams).
Here’s what that looks like:
So the big, overarching entity is the NFL.
Within the NFL there are two conferences, the AFC and the NFC.
Each conference has four divisions (loosely) based on geography: the North, East, South, and West.
Each division has four teams. So the AFC North, for example, consists of the Bengals, Browns, Ravens, and Steelers.
Ok, let’s move onto the postseason.
Teams advance into the postseason by the merit of their regular season record. The team with the best regular season record within each division gets an automatic playoff spot. That’s 8 teams. Two additional teams from each conference also advance. These “wildcard” teams are the two teams with the best record among the non-division winners from the whole conference (AFC or NFC). That’s 4 total wildcards teams. In total, that makes 12 teams that advance into the postseason.
It seems fairly cut and dry: win your division or make the wildcard cut, advance to the playoffs. But as we’ve come to expect, it’s not quite that easy.
Sometimes it really is that easy, like in the AFC East. The Patriots usually end the season north of 12 wins. The rest of the division (Bills, Dolphins, Jets) usually end much farther south of 12 wins. They are usually the undisputed victors of the AFC East. But most of the time the race is a little closer. Take the NFC East, for example. The Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants will probably be fighting for first place until the final week of the season. And what happens if two of the teams end up with the same record? What is multiple potential wildcard teams have the same record, too?
That’s where divisional wins come in, and why divisional games (games against the other teams in your division) are so important.
During the 16-game regular season schedule a team plays all of the other teams in their division twice: once at home, and once away. That accounts for 6 whole games out of a 16-game schedule (the remaining 10 games are played in an even split of home and away games on a rotating schedule against all of the other teams in the league). If two teams in the same division have the same overall record, the team that has the best divisional record gets the playoff spot.
So let’s stick with the NFC East. The Cowboys have won all 4 of their games against the other teams in the division so far. The Eagles have played 5 divisional games and have a 3-2 in-division record. If the season ended today and the Cowboys and Eagles had the same overall record, the Cowboys would still win the division based on their higher divisional record.
The same goes for wildcard teams. If there are multiple potential wildcard teams with the same record (a likelihood in the AFC this year), the two wildcard teams from the division will be decided by which two teams have the highest divisional record.
Once the division winners and wildcard teams are decided the teams are seeded (ranked) according to their record, 1-6 for each division. The four division winners are ranked 1-4 and the wildcard teams are ranked 5-6.
Are you thoroughly confused yet?
If so, you’ve got a week to review! We’ll continue our postseason prep next week by going over last year’s playoff picture to figure our how the playoffs work. And if you have any questions in the meantime you know where to find me!