The cold of December and January. That’s what separates the contenders from the pretenders in the NFL during the playoffs. It’s when some of the greatest moments in NFL history happen, when teams battle through bad weather, fierce enemies and controversial referee calls in an attempt to reach the holy grail of US sports — the Super Bowl.
There’s really nothing that matches the weekly excitement — and hype — of the NFL playoffs. Let’s take a look at the history, the structure and the franchises that have been the most successful ever.
What Are the NFL Playoffs?
Evolution of the Playoffs
The NFL playoffs have had several iterations since their inception 90 years ago in 1933. From the very first season, 1920, through the 1932 season, there were no playoffs. Instead, the league champion was determined by the best record. Thus, the Akron Pros were the very first pro football champion in 1920 with an 8-0-3 record.
From 1933-1959, the postseason consisted of the Eastern Division winner playing the Western Division winner for the NFL championship.
From 1960-65, there were two leagues – the NFL and the AFL (American Football League), each with East and West divisions. The winners of those divisions would play each other to determine the NFL and AFL champions.
From 1966-69, an additional game was added – the ‘”AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” pitting the champions from both leagues, of course later renamed the “Super Bowl” for the 1969 game between the Jets and Colts.
(The name “Super Bowl” was a half-hearted suggestion from Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who thought of it while watching his kids play with a Super Ball in the early 1960s.)
From 1970-77, the NFL playoffs included eight teams total, four in the NFC (National Football Conference) and four in the AFC (American Football Conference). The four teams in each conference included the East, West and Central division winners plus one wild card team.
(In 1970, the AFL and NFL merged and kept the NFL name — the revamped league was split into the NFC and AFC).
In 1978, the NFL added another wild card team and introduced the “Wild Card Round,” which was basically the two NFC Wild Card teams and two AFC Wild Card teams battling for spots in the divisional rounds.
In 1990, the NFL added a third wild card team for each conference, thus bringing the total number of playoff teams to 12. In 2002, after years of team relocations and expansion (Panthers, Jaguars, Texans, Browns), each conference was restricted into four divisions each – North, South, East, West. From the 2002-2019 seasons, there were still 12 playoff teams, consisting of the eight division winners and four wild card teams.
In 2020, the NFL added back the third wild card team, raising the total number of playoff teams to 14.
How the Playoffs Work
The NFL postseason begins the weekend following the end of the regular season, which is now 17 games and 18 weeks long – it had been 14 weeks until 1978, then 17 weeks in 2021.
The first weekend of the playoffs is the Wild Card Round, referred to now as “Super Wild Card Weekend,” when 12 of the 14 teams play. These are the matchups typically:
AFC and NFC:
- 7th seed at 2nd seed
- 6th seed at 3rd seed
- 5th seed at 4th seed
- 1st seed gets bye.
In the Divisional Round, the lowest remaining seed plays at the 1st seed in both conferences, and the second-lowest seed plays at the second-highest’s field. The winners of those games play in the Conference Championship Round, with the winners of those games advancing to the Super Bowl.
Top NFL Teams with Most Playoff Wins
The New England Patriots (known as the Boston Patriots from 1959 until 1971) have the most postseason victories, with 37, thanks to quarterback Tom Brady. He also led the Pats to six Super Bowl victories and three runner-up finishes.
This is the top 10 of all-time NFL playoff wins:
- New England Patriots 37
- San Francisco 49ers 36
- Green Bay Packers 36
- Pittsburgh Steelers 36
- Dallas Cowboys 36
- Los Angeles Rams 26
- Las Vegas Raiders 25
- Philadelphia Eagles 25
- New York Giants 25
- Denver Broncos 23
- Washington Commanders 23
- Indianapolis Colts 23
Factors Contributing to NFL Playoff Wins
Playoff games are often played in the cold, harsh conditions of winter, with snow, subzero temperatures, stiff winds, an icy field, and slippery footballs. The weather’s bad, the pressure’s intense.
Teams need quarterbacks who can make fast and smart decisions and clutch throws, a rushing attack that can help control the pace of game, a defense that doesn’t give up too many big plays and offensive and defensive lines that can dominate the opposing teams’ lines.
But of all the 22 offensive and defensive starters, undoubtedly the QB is by far the most important position. He’s the only player who has his hands on the ball on every offensive play. He has to basically account for 21 players – his 10 teammates plus the 11 defenders – on every play and evaluate multiple options on pass plays in less than three seconds.
Look at the five QBs with the most playoff wins — they are the best ever, with a combined 19 Super Bowl wins among them:
- Tom Brady (35)
- Joe Montana (16)
- Terry Bradshaw (14)
- John Elway (14)
- Peyton Manning (14)
But a great pass rush can derail even the greatest of QBs. The Baltimore Ravens throttled Brady in the 2012 AFC Championship Game, as did the New York Giants in the 2008 and 2012 Super Bowls. The Seahawks made life miserable for Manning in the 2014 Super Bowl with a great pass rush.
The run game can also help a team rack up playoff wins, Getting four or five or more yards on every play puts less pressure on the QB to get all the first-down yardage, and an offensive line and run game that controls the line of scrimmage can demoralize a defense, wear them down and eat up a bunch of clock.
The run game was more important — or maybe as important — as the passing game up until the 1980s. Legends like Franco Harris, Larry Csonka and Tony Dorsett helped their teams dominate games and get deep into the playoffs every season.
With the Patriots having their worst season since 2000, this season is ripe for another team to become the all-time playoff wins leader. The 49ers and Cowboys – both one game behind the Patriots at 36 – appear to be headed to the playoffs. The Steelers aren’t as good as those teams this season, but still could sneak into the playoffs, and they are also at 36 wins all-time.
Football is a complementary sport. A great offense helps the defense do its job, and vice versa, and great special teams help everyone. Coaches make life easier for their players with great play-calling and putting their players in the best spots to succeed, and players help out their coaches by doing their assignments correctly – be it tackling, blocking, route-running, etc.
Thus, the greatest teams throughout history have been able to check off most, if not all, of these boxes. Sadly, there are franchises that have never been able to put it all together. The Detroit Lions have ONE playoff victory since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. The Houston Texans have four in their entire 21-year history. The Jets haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010.
The NFL playoffs are where legends are born, where legends are solidified. Maybe there will be a new legend to emerge this winter. We wait and see.
If you’re interested in betting on football with Tipico, be sure to read about our blog on the best NFL betting strategy.
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