Since the 2020 season, 14 teams receive playoff berths, seven from each conference. Before 2020, the NFL had a stable playoff layout with six teams in each conference making the playoffs from 1990-2020. Only one team per conference gets a bye in the first round with the current format. Previously the top two teams per conference were given a bye.
Growing up in the late-90s and early-00s, I was always partial to the previous playoff schedule with two games on Saturday and Sunday for both the wild-card and divisional rounds. I’ll admit the new format hasn’t grown on me yet, and I’d love to see the teams with the second-best record in each conference given a bye.
In this article, we’ll provide some more detail on why the NFL and other major professional leagues continue to expand their playoff system along with how the scheduling and a team’s strategy have changed as the bracket continues to evolve.
- 14 teams make the playoffs with seven teams from each conference represented.
- The team with the best record in each conference is awarded a bye and home-field advantage until the Super Bowl
- The new playoff format began in 2020. Previously six teams in each conference received a playoff berth with two teams earning first-round byes
When Did the NFL Move to the Current Playoff Format?
The NFL moved to its current playoff format in 2020. While you could argue that the 8-8 Chicago Bears had no business in the playoffs (they lost 21-9 to the Saints), it did prevent an 11-5 team in the AFC from being left at home. 
This current format puts a lot more value on whichever team finishes with the best record in their respective conference, as every other team now has to play in the wild-card round. As with previous playoff formats, the 1 seed also has home-field advantage throughout the postseason. While the 2 seed must play in the opening round; they’re also promised home games until the championship round.
Previous Playoff Formats
Like many professional leagues, the NFL has steadily increased the number of teams that qualify for the postseason. It’s hard not to see this decision as financially motivated. The more games a league can put on television or sell tickets to, the more lucrative the league will be.
Before the current 14-team playoff set-up, the NFL had six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs. The wild card round consisted of two wild-card games in each conference while the two teams with the best conference in both conferences received a bye and a guaranteed home game in the divisional round.
This was the playoff bracket for 30 years from 1990 to 2020. 
Before 1990, five teams in each conference received playoff invitations with just one wild-card game per conference.
Personally, my favorite postseason set-up was the version we enjoyed from 1990 to 2020. Rewarding the two best teams in each conference with extra rest and a home game did a great job of incentivizing the regular season while also incorporating the variance that can occur in a 16-game season.
My Case Against the New Playoff Format
Now, just one team gets a first-round bye, decreasing the incentive for prospective two-seeds to play with maximum effort late in the year to get that elusive week off. It makes the postseason more random and feels more like a crapshoot. I prefer rewarding the best regular-season teams whenever possible.
Take the 2022 AFC for example. The Buffalo Bills had an excellent season and were probably the second-best team in the NFL behind the Kansas City Chiefs. But despite winning 13 games, they had to play in the wild-card round as the Chiefs snagged the only bye. To be fair, Buffalo lost in the second round to the Bengals who also had to play in the wild-card round. 
There were some unique circumstances due to the Damar Hamlin injury canceling the Bengals/Bills game in week 16, but even if that game would have been played in full, one of these deserving teams would have been denied a well-earned week off.
I can appreciate the argument that more football is a good thing, and maybe I’ll eventually get used to the new playoff bracket. But it still feels clunky to me and I appreciated the symmetry and additional first-round bye that was awarded to the best teams. I’d also rather see fewer 9-8 and 8-9 teams from limping into the postseason like the Bears in 2020 or the Dolphins and Seahawks in 2022.
How do you feel about the new playoff format? Would you add more teams or shrink the field back down to the way it was before? Or would you go even further and cut it down to pre-1990 numbers? Let us know in the comments below.