NFL playoff tiebreakers explained: A guide to messy AFC and NFC races
With tight playoff races ongoing in the AFC and NFC, deciding who goes to the postseason could come down to tiebreakers. There are several, so we ran down the full process.
The NFL season is winding to a close. The playoff picture is starting to sort itself out, but there are a handful of teams still vying for a wild card spot, first-round byes and a few division titles up for grabs. It’s a good time for a refresher on how the NFL settles tiebreakers for the playoffs.
The actual tiebreaking procedures in the NFL are, in theory, relatively simple. Teams are seeded so that the top four spots go to the four division champions, sorted by best record. The No. 5 seed is the wild card team with the best record, and the No. 6 seed is the wild card club with the next-best record. The individual tiebreaker procedures for all of those spots can be found below.
It all starts with the head-to-head.
It doesn’t get much simpler than this — the best won/lost/tied percentage in games between the two teams in question. For example, if the Broncos and the Patriots finish tied for the best record in the AFC, the Patriots would get the nod for the top seed because of their win against Denver in Week 9.
That goes for division races too. The Lions and Packers both have an 11-4 record after Week 16 wins, but Detroit has the lead in the division because they beat the Packers earlier this year. The NFC North will get settled in Week 17 when the Lions go to Green Bay for the season finale.
The head-to-head matchup is the first and most important tiebreaker, be it for seeding, to decide a division, or wild card team, among two or more teams.
Division and conference records
If the head-to-head record is evenly matched for division rivals or if there is no applicable head-to-head matchup between two teams, the NFL moves on to won/lost/tied percentage within a subset of games. To break a tie between two teams in a division, it’s the won/lost/tied percentage in games played within that division, followed by the won/lost/tied percentage in common games, and finally the won/lost/tied percentage in games played within the conference. A common game refers to an opponent that both teams faced during the season.
To break a tie between wild card teams, the procedure goes straight to games played within the conference, followed by common games if they share a minimum of four. If two teams don’t share enough common games, you get into strength of victory and strength of schedule.
If three or more teams from different divisions have the same record, head-to-head is applied first. If one team has beat every other team in the deadlock, then it gets priority and tiebreakers reset for the remaining teams. If no team has swept the others, then the tiebreak goes to the team with the best won/lost/tied percentage in conference games. Then it’s the common games (once again, with a minimum of four) and strength of victory next.
Strength of victory/Schedule and the Rest
This is where things potentially get frustrating for fans. Fortunately, tiebreakers rarely get this far down the list, but if it does, the NFL is prepared. Strength of victory is calculated by combining the winning percentages of every opponent a team has beaten. Strength of schedule is similar, but combines the winning percentage of every one of a team’s regular season opponents, win or lose.
After that, the tiebreaker comes down to a team’s combined ranking among peers in points scored and points allowed against conference opponents, then every team on its schedule. For example, if (hypothetically) the Seahawks ranked first in points allowed and 11th in points against NFC opponents, and the Cardinals ranked third and eighth, respectively, the Cardinals would win the tiebreaker with a combined ranking of 11 (3+8) against the Seahawks’ 12 (1+11).
Things simplify from there. Net points in common games is the next tiebreaker, followed by net points in all games, then most touchdowns in all games and, finally … a coin toss. Yes, a coin toss. These steps are also the same for wild card teams. And that’s generally how tiebreakers are handled in the NFL (phew).