NFL Division and Conference Structure
The NFL is split into two conferences with one known as the American Football Conference, or the “AFC” for short, and the National Football Conference, or “NFC” for short. These conferences got their names after the two rival leagues, which were known as the American Football League (AFL) and the National Football League (NFL), officially merged in 1970 after they agreed it would be mutually beneficial to do so.
Today the league consists of 32 teams divided evenly between the two conferences, meaning 16 teams in each. Each of these conferences is then divided up again into divisions. There are four divisions within each conference and each division has 4 teams in it. Each of these teams has been put in their division based on their geographical location. Instead of them having special names or numbers, the divisions are named: North, East, South and West. So the AFC has the AFC North, AFC East, AFC South and AFC West, with the same format for the NFC.
As for which teams are in the AFC and which are in the NFC, this was based on which teams were in which league prior to the merger in 1970. The NFL had more teams than the AFL so some teams swapped conferences (check out the NFL History page for more on this) and as the league has evolved over the years more teams have been added so the divisions and teams within them have had to evolve with it.
NFL Regular Season
Each of the NFL teams plays 16 regular season games over the course of a gruelling 17-week long regular season. There’s a method the league uses to decide who plays who throughout the regular season, that I’ll go over in a future blog post, but I’ll try and stick to the basics for now.
Unlike in football (soccer), the NFL teams don’t get points given to them for each win or draw. Instead, the divisional standings are based purely on how many games they have won, lost or tied. So if a team wins 10 games and loses 6 (there aren’t many tied games in the NFL) it is said to have finished the regular season with a 10 and 6(10-6) regular season record. The team with the best record at the end of the regular season wins their division and automatically progresses to the playoffs. The team with the second best record finishes second in their division and stands a chance of progressing to the coveted playoff stage of the season as a Wildcard team.
In the image above the teams with the letter ‘Z’ next to their name have won the division and made it to the playoffs and the teams with the ‘Y’ have qualified as a wildcard team because they have good won/lost records but they weren’t good enough to win their division and go through as division champions. The New England Patriots did the best in the AFC this season and so earned the benefit of having homefield advantage (they got to play all their playoff games at home) throughout the playoffs, hence the * next to their name. The league is geared towards all teams playing to the best of their abilities all season long and therefore making games more meaningful and exciting to watch.
How do NFL Playoffs Work
Once the regular season of 16 games is complete, the NFL moves on to what they call the “post-season” and/or “playoffs”. This part of the season is run as a knockout format so, if you win you advance to the next round but if you lose you go home until next season. It’s a one match at a time shootout with no second chances.
Once we are in the playoffs, the conferences are separated from each other and their teams fight it out amongst themselves for the right to go to the Super Bowl and represent their conference in the big game.
Each of the teams that won their division go through as do the two teams in each conference that had the next best won/loss record (out of all the teams in their conference that didn’t win their division). These extra two teams are called “Wildcard” teams.
So now we have 6 teams (4 division winners and 2 wildcards) fighting it out in the knockout competition within their respective conference (AFC or NFC).
Each team is given a seeding within the 6 teams from their conference to work out who will play who throughout this playoff stage. The team that won its division and had the best won/lost regular season record is known as the #1 seed and is considered to be the strongest team in that conference. The division winner who had the second best regular season record is the #2 seed and considered as the second strongest team etc. The two wildcard teams will take the #5 and #6 seeds with the team which had the best regular season record out of the two taking #5.
Sometimes a wildcard team can have a better regular season record than a division winner from a different division. This could be because one division is populated by generally weaker teams or the teams are more evenly matched and therefore struggle to get more wins or one division could just have a couple of dominant teams who win a lot more than they lose, perhaps due to having a weaker schedule that year. Whatever the reason, it usually all gets sorted out in the knockout playoff stages.
Throughout the playoffs, the highest remaining seeded team always plays against the lowest remaining seeded team. This could be seen as another reward for playing hard all season long trying to get the best won/lost record possible, but it’s more likely a move that was introduced to give the best chance of the strongest team from the AFC meeting the strongest team from the NFC in the Super Bowl. The league would obviously want this to be the case as it gives the best chance for a great game that the millions of fans around the world will enjoy and, as a result, keep coming back for more.
The teams from each conference keep playing the other teams in their conference until only one is left. This team then goes on to play the one remaining team from the other conference in the big game known as the Super Bowl.