The Crazy, Confusing World of NFL Playoff Scenarios

NFL playoff scenarios can be quite confusing, and it’s not just about who gets in. It’s about who goes where, who clinches a bye, and who gets home field advantage. Here is my breakdown of how teams get into the playoffs, how where and when they play is decided, and, finally, this year’s playoff picture.

Division Leaders

Teams put a high amount of value on winning their respective divisions, and rightfully so. Each division-winning team in the NFL - there are eight - is granted a trip to the playoffs. That means that a team with an 8–8 record that wins its division will go to the playoffs over an 12–4 team that doesn’t. It’s crazy, but it’s true.

The league is set up this way to create more competition. Fans want to watch games that mean something and allowing the eight teams with the best win-loss record into the playoffs would take away from the drama.

For example, the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings each have a 10–5 record in the NFC North. The Washington Redskins lead the NFC East with an 8–7 record. If the NFL were set up to allow the best win-loss records into the playoffs, the Redskins would not be eligible. But because all division winners are in, so are the Redskins.

Wildcard Teams

Two teams from each league make it into the playoffs as Wildcard teams, determined by taking all of the teams that didn’t win a division and selecting the teams with the two best records.

This helps get the best teams to the playoffs, but it isn’t foolproof. Sometimes the third-best team in one division has a better record than the best team in another.

Home-field Advantage

The NFL offers a huge advantage to the home team, especially in cities like Seattle, Kansas City, and Green Bay, so getting home-field advantage for the playoffs is a big deal. With each match-up, the team with the better record hosts the game, so the team with the best record overall earns home-field advantage for the duration of the league series.

The 2015 Playoff Picture


Week 17 should prove exciting with the number of division championships and playoff spots on the line.

In the AFC, teams already in are New England (AFC East champs), Cincinnati (AFC North champs), Denver, and Kansas City. Denver and Kansas City have the division on the line with a number of ways the situation can play out. I’ll spare you the confusing details.

Playoff spots are on the line for the New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans, and Indianapolis Colts. The Jets and Steelers are fighting for the remaining Wild Card spot (the other will go to Denver or Kansas City, depending on which wins the division) while the Texans and Colts are fighting for the AFC South crown.

In the NFC, all teams have been decided, it’s just a matter of who will win divisions and who will clinch home-field advantage. Carolina, Arizona, Washington, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Seattle are all in, with Carolina, Arizona, and Washington slated as division winners. Only the NFC North is up for grabs, decided by the Sunday Night Football game between Green Bay and Minnesota.

The only other factor in the NFC is home-field advantage between Carolina and Arizona. As long as Carolina wins, it takes home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Arizona can only take it if they win and Carolina loses.

Playoffs, anyone?

The final month of the NFL season can leave your brain in knots as you listen to all of the potential scenarios, but once the playoffs start, it’s all about fun.

One more week and it’s time for the playoff grind!