Stories from the Pro Football Hall of Fame Archives

By: Jon Kendle

Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.

NFL Enters 90th Postseason with Wild Card Weekend


Jan 18, 2022

 

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The National Football League put the “wild” in its SUPER Wild Card Weekend.

For the second season, two additional teams (one from each conference) are in the playoffs, and only one team from each conference has received a first-round bye.

Super Wild Card Weekend began with two games Saturday, continued with a tripleheader Sunday and finished with the debut of a “Monday Night Football” wild card game.

New playoff formats have been a staple for the NFL since they adopted a postseason schedule following the 1932 season.

The NFL's first playoff game was played indoors at Chicago Stadium on Dec. 18, 1932, when the Chicago Bears hosted the Portsmouth Spartans (later the Detroit Lions) in a one-game playoff game to determine the NFL champion.

The following season the league divided into two conferences. The winners of each conference met in the NFL Championship game. There was no tie-breaker system in place; any ties in the final standings of either conference resulted in a playoff game.

Many considered that playoff structure, used from 1933 to 1966, to be inequitable.

Four times between 1950 and 1966 (1951, 1956, 1960 and 1963), the team with the second-best win-loss record in the league did not qualify for the postseason because it finished in second place in its conference.

After three decades, a new playoff system was unveiled because of the realignment that occurred prior to the 1970 merger of the NFL and American Football League.

The merged league consisted of two conferences, each containing three divisions. The three division winners and the non-division-winning team with the best won-loss percentage qualified for the playoffs.

A predetermined postseason schedule was produced that rotated the home teams based on divisions, regardless of winning percentage. While that format was short-lived (the league dropped it in 1975), the addition of a wild card team remained.

Then on March 29, 1978, the NFL adopted a new 16-game schedule. An additional wild card team in each conference was added to the playoff format, with the two wild cards squaring off during the first weekend of the postseason.

In 1990, two more wild card teams were added to the mix. This increased television revenue and helped streamline a complex tiebreaking system. With a total of three wild card teams included from each conference, twelve of the league's 28 teams qualified for the playoffs.

Then, in 2002, the league expanded to 32 teams and realigned into eight four-team divisions. A total of seven teams changed divisions, with the Seattle Seahawks switching from the AFC to the NFC, where they first played in 1976.

The playoff format included the four division winners and two wild-card teams from each conference. The Wild Card games that kicked off postseason play featured two division winners hosting the wild-card teams. The two top-seeded division winners from each conference received a bye.

Which brings us back to the Super Wild Card weekend introduced last season that added a third wild-card team from each conference.

Since the Wild Card System began in 1970, only 11 wild-card teams have advanced all the way to the Super Bowl. Of those, seven won the Super Bowl. Only five of those wild-card teams – New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and last season’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers – won three games on the road to make it to the Super Bowl.