Each year, teams battle it out in the regular season to secure a spot in the playoffs, with the ultimate goal of reaching the Super Bowl.
While division winners earn automatic playoff berths, the remaining spots, known as wild card berths, are awarded to the best-performing non-division-winning teams.
Today, three wild card teams from each conference advance to the playoffs.
Below we look at the number of wild card teams in the NFL and how this has evolved over the years.
The Evolution of Wild Card Teams
The concept of “wild card” teams in the NFL playoffs has evolved over the years, reflecting changes in the league’s structure and the desire to make the postseason more competitive.
Here’s a brief overview of the progression of wild card teams in the NFL playoffs:
Pre-Wild Card Era (Before 1970)
Before the merger of the American Football League (AFL) and the National Football League (NFL) in 1970, each league had its own playoff system.
The NFL had a championship game between the winners of its two conferences, while the AFL had a similar setup.
Introduction of the Wild Card (1970-1977)
After the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the league was divided into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).
Each conference had three divisions.
The playoff structure consisted of the three division winners and one wild card team (the team with the best record that didn’t win its division) from each conference, making it a total of eight teams in the playoffs.
This format allowed for a team that didn’t win its division but had a strong record to still have a shot at the Super Bowl.
Expansion of the Playoffs (1978-1989)
In 1978, the NFL expanded the playoffs to include two wild card teams from each conference, bringing the total number of playoff teams to ten.
This change was made in part because of the league’s expansion to a 16-game regular season.
Further Expansion (1990-2001)
In 1990, the NFL added a third wild card team to each conference, increasing the total number of playoff teams to 12.
This format had the three division winners and three wild card teams from each conference making the playoffs.
Realignment and Current Structure (2002-Present)
In 2002, the NFL underwent a realignment, creating four divisions in each conference.
The playoff format was adjusted to include the four division winners and two wild card teams from each conference, maintaining the total of 12 playoff teams.
This structure ensures that divisional rivalries are preserved while still allowing for the two best non-division-winning teams in each conference to make the playoffs.
Addition of a Seventh Team (2020-Present)
In 2020, the NFL expanded the playoffs again, adding a third wild card team to each conference.
This means that seven teams from each conference make the playoffs, with only the top seed in each conference receiving a first-round bye.
This change was made to increase the competitiveness of the regular season, as more teams have a chance to make the playoffs.
The wild card system has been instrumental in adding excitement and unpredictability to the NFL playoffs.
Over the years, several wild card teams have made deep playoff runs, and some have even won the Super Bowl.
The system ensures that deserving teams have a shot at the championship, even if they don’t win their division.
Impact of Wild Card Teams
The introduction of wild card teams has had a significant impact on the NFL playoffs.
It has not only increased the number of teams participating but also added an element of unpredictability and excitement to the postseason.
Here are some key impacts of wild card teams:
- Increased Competition: With the inclusion of wild card teams, more teams have a chance to compete for the championship, making the regular season more intense and exciting.
- Expanded Fan Base: Wild card teams often have a strong following, and their inclusion in the playoffs allows fans of those teams to continue supporting them even if they did not win their division.
- Upsets and Cinderella Stories: Wild card teams have been known to cause upsets and create memorable underdog stories in the playoffs. These unexpected victories add drama and intrigue to the postseason.
- TV Ratings and Revenue: The inclusion of more teams in the playoffs increases viewership and generates higher TV ratings, leading to increased revenue for the league and its broadcasting partners.
FAQ – How Many Wild Card Teams in the NFL?
1. How many wild card teams are there in the NFL playoffs?
In the current NFL playoff format, there are four wild card teams, two from each conference.
2. How are the wild card teams determined?
The wild card teams are determined based on their win-loss records.
In case of ties, various tiebreakers, such as head-to-head record, conference record, and strength of schedule, are used to determine the wild card teams.
3. When were wild card teams introduced in the NFL?
Wild card teams were introduced in the NFL in 1970.
4. Why were wild card teams introduced?
Wild card teams were introduced to provide more opportunities for deserving teams with strong records to participate in the playoffs, even if they did not win their division.
5. How many teams make the playoffs in total?
A total of 12 teams make the playoffs in the current NFL format, with six teams from each conference.
6. Do wild card teams have a chance to win the Super Bowl?
Wild card teams have a history of making deep playoff runs and even winning the Super Bowl.
The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 2010 Green Bay Packers are notable examples of wild card teams that went on to win the Super Bowl.
7. Can a wild card team host a playoff game?
Yes, a wild card team can host a playoff game if their win-loss record is better than that of the division winner they are facing.
In such cases, the wild card team is awarded home-field advantage.
8. How often do wild card teams advance in the playoffs?
Wild card teams have a decent track record of advancing in the playoffs.
Since the introduction of wild card teams in 1970, they have won the Super Bowl on multiple occasions and have made it to the conference championship games numerous times.
9. Has there ever been a wild card team that reached the Super Bowl?
Yes, several wild card teams have reached the Super Bowl.
In addition to the aforementioned 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2010 Green Bay Packers, other wild card teams that made it to the Super Bowl include the 1980 Oakland Raiders, the 1997 Denver Broncos, and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
10. Can a division winner be considered a wild card team?
No, a division winner cannot be considered a wild card team.
Division winners automatically qualify for the playoffs and are not part of the wild card selection process.
11. Are there any disadvantages for wild card teams?
Wild card teams face some disadvantages compared to division winners.
They often have to play on the road throughout the playoffs, as division winners are awarded home-field advantage.
Additionally, wild card teams may have a tougher path to the Super Bowl, as they may face higher-seeded teams in the early rounds.
12. How many wild card teams have won the Super Bowl?
Since the introduction of wild card teams in 1970, a total of 10 wild card teams have won the Super Bowl.
13. Can a wild card team have a better record than a division winner?
Yes, it is possible for a wild card team to have a better win-loss record than a division winner.
In such cases, the wild card team is awarded a higher seed and may even host a playoff game.
14. Can a wild card team have a worse record than a division winner?
Yes, a wild card team can have a worse win-loss record than a division winner.
However, the division winner will still be awarded a higher seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
15. Are there any plans to change the number of wild card teams in the future?
As of now, there are no official plans to change the number of wild card teams in the NFL playoffs.
However, the league is constantly evaluating its format to ensure the best possible competition and fan experience.
The NFL playoffs have become more inclusive and exciting with the introduction of wild card teams.
From two wild card teams in 1970 to four in the present format, these teams have added an extra layer of competition and unpredictability to the postseason.
Wild card teams have the opportunity to make deep playoff runs and even win the Super Bowl, as demonstrated by past champions.
The inclusion of wild card teams has expanded the fan base, increased TV ratings, and generated higher revenue for the league.
Overall, the presence of wild card teams has enhanced the competitiveness and entertainment value of the NFL playoffs.