How will the 2021 NFL playoffs work?

By Stuart Dick

Published: 15:00, 12 January 2021 | Updated: 15:03, 12 January 2022

The ultimate goal for each of the NFL’s 32 franchises is to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which awarded at the end of each season to the winner of the Super Bowl. Before a team can even begin thinking about the Super Bowl, however, they must first ensure playoff qualification.

After more than four decades with a 16-game regular season schedule, NFL teams in 2021 will have to contend with a 17-game schedule. At the end of the regular season, 14 teams – seven each from the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC) – will qualify for the postseason. Each 2021 playoff team will be dreaming of a February 2022 trip to SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, for Super Bowl LVI.

Today, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about the 2021 NFL playoffs: which teams qualify and who plays who once they’re in.

Who qualifies for the playoffs?

Division Winners

The NFL is comprised of eight, four-team divisions. Each conference, AFC and NFC, has a North, South, East and West division. The top team from each of these divisions qualifies automatically. The playoff brackets are separated by conference, and the four division are seeded, from #1 to #4, based on regular season record. Each division winner is guaranteed at least one home playoff game.

The #1 seed in each conference receives a bye through the first round of the playoffs (the Wild Card round), and is given home field advantage for its two playoff games prior to the Super Bowl (which is always played at a neutral site).

Wild Cards

An addition six teams – three from each conference – also qualify for the playoffs as “Wild Cards”. These, the best non-division -winning teams from each conference by regular season record, are seeded #5 to #7.

To have a chance of winning its division, a team typically needs to win at least 10 games. Securing a Wild Card berth has typically needed to win at least 9 or 10 games. We have yet to fully understand the impact on teams of a 17th regular season game. However, it stands to reason that these unofficial thresholds will be higher in 2021.

Not all is lost, however, if the season doesn’t go totally according to plan. Last season the Washington Football Team advanced to the playoffs as the champion of the NFC East – one of the worse divisions in NFL history – with a record of just 7-9.

Under the new, 14-team playoff format (from 1990 through 2019, only 12 teams made the playoffs), it is theoretically possible, though highly unlikely, that all four teams from a single division reach the playoffs in the same season.

How the playoffs work?

Wild Card round

In the Wild Card round, 12 teams take in six games. At this stage, #2 team from each conference seed plays the #7 seed from the same conference, #3 plays #6, and #4 plays #5. The winners advance to the Divisional Round, which is, essentially, the quarterfinal stage of the NFL playoffs.

Divisional round

Eight teams qualify for the Divisional round: the three winners in the Wild Card round, and the #1 seed, which had earned a bye. The Divisional round consists of four games – two in each conference.

The #1 seed in each conference plays the lowest seeded team remaining from that conference, with the remaining sides facing off in the other contest. The higher ranked seed in each matchup has home field advantage.

Conference Championship round

The four teams remaining after the Divisional Round then face off in two Conference Championship Games.

The two remaining NFC teams battle for the George Halas Trophy, while the two remaining AFC teams play for the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Home field advantage for each Conference Championship Game goes to the team that entered the playoffs with the higher seeding.

The winners of these games are declared NFC and AFC Champions and, of course, awarded places in the Super Bowl, which is played two weeks after the Conference Championship round.

Super Bowl LVI

The 2021 season culminates on Sunday February 13, 2022, with a battle between the NFC Champions and the AFC Champions, for the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the title of “World Champions”, at SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California .

The newly-built facility, which is the home venue of the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams, was opened in September 2020 and has a capacity of 100,240.

Playoff records

Most appearances

The Dallas Cowboys have made the most playoff appearances in NFL history, taking part in 63 playoff games, and winning 35. However, the Cowboys recent playoff form has left a lot to be desired, as just three of their playoff victories have come in the past 20 years.

As a result, the New England Patriots, who’ve won 37 playoff games (and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have won 36) have eclipsed the Cowboys postseason win total.

‘Winningest’ team

In terms of win percentage, unsurprisingly, the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots top the list, with wins in 63.8% of their 58 playoff contests. The Patriots have also won the most postseason games (37), one ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers.

Most defeats

The Minnesota Vikings hold the unwanted record of most defeats in the postseason, with 30. The Cowboys are next on the list, with 28 defeats. In terms of win percentage, it’s the Cincinnati Bengals who take top (or bottom) honors, with wins in just 5 of 19 ( or 26.3%) playoff games.

Longest playoff drought

Fans of the New York Jets have not seen their side make the playoffs since a Wild Card appearance in 2010. The Jets actually advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game prior to this 11-year drought.

The next longest droughts belong to Cincinnati, the Arizona Cardinals and the Denver Broncos, each of whom last made the playoffs in 2015 – though it’s worth noting that Broncos did win the Super Bowl that year.

Super Bowl records

The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Vince Lombardi Trophies each, while the Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers have five apiece.

At the other end of the scale, the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings have each appeared in four Super Bowls – and lost each one. The Bills, in fact, lost four consecutive Super Bowls between 1990-1993.

12 of the 32 NFL franchises have yet to win a Super Bowl title. Four franchises – the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lion, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars – have yet to even make an appearance.


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