How Many Teams Make the NFL Playoffs?

GettyImages 1430774104 6088d6 e1710345504146
Getty Images

Wondering how many teams make the playoffs in America's most popular sports league? We've got you covered.

One thing that is unique about the NFL amongst the four major professional sports leagues is that the NFL is the only one with a single-elimination format. Kind of a no-brainer rule given the time it takes to recover from a game. 

Right now, in 2024, the answer to our question is 14 teams out of 32...but there have been a lot of different iterations of the playoff system.

Let's go back to the early days of the league, more recent history and finally, the status of today's playoff eligibility.

All info from Pro Football Reference.

The Early Days, 1933-1966

GettyImages 517403628
Getty Images

From 1933-1966, the NFL used the word "playoffs" in a way that seems antiquated today. The league had two conferences, and the winner of each conference played in the championship. Simple, huh? That counts as two playoff teams. Many of the champions in that era were teams that are still quite relevant today: the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions, who won titles in 1935, 1952, 1953 and 1957 (and famously, none since).

Playoff Growth/AFL partnership/Birth of the Super Bowl, 1967-1969

GettyImages 52286169
Getty Images

By 1966, even though the NFL was still the biggest football league in the world, the upstart AFL (American Football League) was nipping at its heels. The AFL had been around since 1960 and was getting an increasing share of top college players and TV dollars.

As the competition between the leagues got tenser and more expensive for both parties, the AFL and NFL agreed to a merger. They would operate as separate leagues until 1970, but decided on a combined championship game that would be played between the two league champions. Welcome to the Super Bowl, everyone!

In 1967, the NFL playoffs were expanded to four teams—the winners of the four divisions of the moment: Capitol, Century, Coastal and Central. The winners of the two divisional games then met in the NFL Championship, and the winner of that game went to the Super Bowl (although it wasn't called that yet), where they played the winners of the AFL Championship.

AFL Merger/AFC and NFC/Playoff Growth, 1970-1977

GettyImages 53179645
Getty Images

The AFL-NFL merger was complete by 1970. All the teams were in the NFL at this point, but they were divided into two conferences: the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference. This is effectively the way the league has been structured ever since.

The AFC had 13 teams, mostly former AFL members, and the NFC also had 13. The conferences were divided into three divisions. Each division winner, plus one wild card per conference, made the playoffs. So from 1970-1977, eight NFL teams made the playoffs.

More regular season games/more Wild Cards, 1978-1989

GettyImages 515427174
Getty Images

Having stabilized as a league and grown in popularity (and size, thanks to the 1976 additions of two expansion teams), the NFL extended the regular season from 14 games to 16 games in 1978. The league also grew the playoff field again, this time to 10 teams (three division winners and two wild cards per conference).

Night games and 12 teams, 1990-2020

GettyImages 1303432867
Getty Images

Between 1990-2020, as the NFL become unquestionably the most popular sport to follow in America, the league added four more teams to reach a total of 32. They were organized into four divisions across the two conferences, with both the AFC and NFC having an East, South, North and West Division. As far as the playoff size, the league expanded the field again, this time to 12: four division winners and two wild cards per conference. The NFL also introduced night playoff games in 2001, an "innovation" that seems extra quaint now that so many of the NFL postseason games take place in the evening.

The 14-team Modern Era, 2021-today

GettyImages 1933356261
Getty Images

Coming out of the Covid pandemic and a major new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners that took hold in 2020 and 2021, the NFL extended the season again. For one thing, the regular season was expanded to include 17 games. For another, yet another wild card team was added in each conference, meaning that 14 teams make the playoffs.

Given the awkwardness of a 17-game season, the relatively high percentage of teams that now make the playoffs (14 of 32) and the continued interest in the sport across North America and, increasingly, the globe, further expansion seems inevitable. What type? It says here that by 2030 the NFL will have 36 teams and 18 regular season games, but playoff size may stay at 14. But who knows? We'll be watching either way...

Did you like this article?
Thumbs Up
Thumbs Down