NFL 2021 Playoffs Format explained: Number of Teams, Seeding Changes and Updated Schedule

The NFL will debut a new playoff format when the postseason gets underway on Saturday. The 32 franchises approved the new format back in March, giving the green light to the first postseason expansion in three decades as 14 teams have qualified for the playoffs, as opposed to the 12 that have clinched a postseason berth each year since the NFL last expanded the playoffs in 1990.

The most striking difference of the new format is that the wild card weekend will feature an additional two games, while only the top seed in the AFC and the NFC—the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers—have earned a first-round bye.

Here's how the new NFL postseason will work.

What are the main changes the NFL has made?

The league has expanded the playoffs to welcome an extra team from each conference, creating a new wild card spot in the AFC and the NFC. As a result, 14 teams have punched a ticket to the postseason this year, compared to the system that was in place for the last three decades when the AFC and NFC each had six representatives in the playoffs.

While the number of teams in the postseason has increased by two, the seeding system has remained unaltered meaning the four division winners in the two conferences secured the top four seeds, irrespective of their regular season record. That is why the Washington Football Team is the No. 4 seed in the NFC, despite having a worse record of all the three lower-seeded teams and being the only division winner with a losing record—Washington is only the third team in NFL history in seasons not curtailed by strikes to win a division with a record lower than .500 after the 2010 Seattle Seahawks and the 2014 Carolina Panthers.

NFL, NFL playoffs
A general view of the NFL Wild Card logo prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on January 5 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mitchell Leff/Getty

The Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champions, secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC after winning the AFC West with an NFL-best 14-2 record, while the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers are the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds after winning the AFC East and the AFC North with a 13-3 and 12-4 record respectively. The Tennessee Titans are the last team to qualify as division champion in the AFC, after finishing top of the AFC South with at 11-5.

In the NFC, meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers secured the No. 1 spot after winning the NFC North with a 13-3 record, with the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks clinching the second and third seed after finishing top of the NFC South and NFC West respectively with a 12-4 record.

The three wild card teams in each conference received the fifth, sixth and seventh seed respectively based on their regular season record. The Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts are the No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 seeds in the AFC, while the 11-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 10-6 Los Angeles Rams and 8-8 Chicago Bears are the No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 seeds in the NFC.

The other major change is that while up until last season the top two seeds in each conference were given a first round bye, under the new format only the No. 1 seeds in the AFC and NFC have been granted the luxury.

Had the 12-team format remained in place, the Buffalo Bills and the New Orleans Saints—the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the NFC respectively—would not be in action this weekend, while the No. 7 seeds in both conference—the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC and the Chicago Bears in the NFC—would have missed out on postseason football altogether.

How will the new NFL playoffs work?

Having two additional teams in the postseason means the wild card weekend will be a much bigger affair, so much so that the NFL has gone to the extent of rebranding it Super Wild Card Weekend. In theory at least, the potential for upsets is bigger with the No. 2 seeds thrown into the deep end from the first round, although reality may prove very different.

The revamped system will follow the old format in terms of home-field advantage, without the highest-seeded teams in the wild card round hosting the lowest-seeded teams. The No. 3 seeds will play at home against the No. 6 seeds, while the No. 4 seeds will host the No. 5 seeds.

That means in the AFC the Bills will host the Colts this weekend, with Cleveland traveling to Pittsburgh and Baltimore to Tennessee. Meanwhile, in the NFC, Washington gets to host Tampa Bay, while the Saints welcome the Bears and the Seahawks host the Rams in an NFC West rivalry.

As was the case under the 12-team format, the No. 1 seed in the AFC and NFC have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Will the playoff TV schedule change?

The addition of a seventh team in each conference mean that for the first time ever, there will be three games on Saturday and three games on Sunday in the Wild Card round.

The games will kick off at 1:05 p.m. ET, 4:40 p.m. ET and 8:15 p.m. ET on each day.

The games will be broadcast across CBS, FOX, NBC, ESPN, ABC and Nickelodeon, with live streaming available via Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, ESPN+ and Peacock. A Spanish broadcast will be available on FOX Deportes, Universo, ESPN Deportes and Telemundo.

All times listed below are ET.

Saturday, January 9

  • AFC: Indianapolis @ Buffalo Bills—1:05 p.m. (CBS, CBS All Access)
  • NFC: Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks—4:40 p.m. (FOX, FOX Deportes)
  • NFC: Tampa Bay @ Washington Football Team—8:15 p.m. (NBC, Universo)

Sunday, January 10

  • AFC: Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans—1:05 p.m. (ESPN/ABC, ESPN2, ESPN+, ESPN Deportes, Freeform)
  • NFC: Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints—4:40 p.m.(CBS, Nickelodeon, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access)
  • AFC: Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers—8:15 p.m. (NBC, Telemundo, Peacock)

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Dan Cancian is currently a reporter for Newsweek based in London, England. Prior to joining Newsweek in January 2018, he was a news and business reporter at International Business Times UK. Dan has also written for The Guardian and The Observer. 

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