Wild Card Games NFL: What is a Wild Card in the NFL?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals

NFL Wild Card Weekend marks the start of the NFL playoffs each season. In recent years, the league has changed its postseason rules, adding an additional team from each the AFC and NFC. As it stands, these are the current rules that make up the NFL playoff format:

  • There are a total of 14 teams that participate in the NFL postseason
  • Four division winners of each conference will receive an order from 1 to 4 based on their regular season record, and three wild card teams will make up the 5th, 6th, and 7th seed in each conference
  • The number one overall seed in each conference, which is the team with the best record in each conference, will receive a first-round bye to the Divisional Round
  • During Wild Card Weekend, the following seeds from each conference will matchup against one another to determine who advances to the second round, also called the Divisional Round: 2nd vs 7th, 3rd vs 6th, and 4th vs 5th
  • After advancing to the Divisional Round, winners will be re-seeded so that the highest ranked teams will meet the lowest ranked teams in order
  • The two winners of each Divisional Round playoff game will advance to the third round, the Conference Championship games. Home field advantage in this game is given to the higher-seeded team
  • The winners of both the AFC and NFC Championship games will meet in the Super Bowl

History of the NFL Wild Card

In 1970, just prior to the merger of the National Football League and the American Football league, the NFL announced that one extra "wild card" team from each conference would be invited to enter the playoffs. In 1978, the number of wild card teams invited to the playoffs from each conference was raised to two.

Twelve years later, in 1990, two more teams from each conference were allowed to play in the playoffs' opening-round wild card games. Starting in 2021, one more additional wild card team was added to each conference, bringing the total to seven playoff teams from each conference.

Super Bowl LVI - Los Angeles Rams v Cincinnati Bengals
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Benefits of the NFL Wild Card

The main benefit for the NFL in adding more teams to play in wild card games is the increase in revenue. The NFL is the most-watched professional sport in the United States. Television revenue is a big source of income for the league. By adding extra wild card teams and extra wild card games, the NFL has allowed itself the opportunity to make more money because networks are willing to pay big money for the rights to air playoff games--including the first-round wild card games.

Effects of the NFL Wild Card

Entering the playoffs as a wild card team puts the team at a disadvantage because it will likely not play home games during the playoffs. Between 1970 and 2021, only 13 wild card teams have made it to the Super Bowl, with eight emerging victorious.

List of wild card teams that have made it to the Super Bowl (bolds indicates that the team won the Super Bowl that year)

  • 2021 Cincinnati Bengals
  • 2021 Los Angeles Rams
  • 2018 Philadelphia Eagles
  • 2010 Green Bay Packers
  • 2007 New York Giants
  • 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 2000 Baltimore Ravens
  • 1999 Tennessee Titans
  • 1997 Denver Broncos
  • 1992 Buffalo Bills
  • 1985 New England Patriots
  • 1980 Oakland Raiders
  • 1975 Dallas Cowboys

Significance

Some of the teams that have emerged from the NFL wild card games during the opening week of the playoffs have become some of the most memorable teams in the history of the NFL. The Buffalo Bills defeated the Houston Oilers in a wild card game in 1992 that became one of the greatest games in NFL history. The Bills trailed 35 to 3 at halftime, but stormed back in the second half to stage the most significant come-from-behind-win in NFL history when it won 41 to 38 in overtime.

The 2007 New York Giants, another wild card team, made it to the Super Bowl and ruined Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' shot at an undefeated season by defeating them to win the championship.

Most recently, almost all of America rallied behind Joe Burrow and the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals, who took a 10-7 regular-season record all the way to the Super Bowl, nearly defeating Matthew Stafford and the LA Rams.

Misconceptions

It should not be assumed that wild card teams are automatically inferior to division winners. Although the wild card teams are not division winners, they very often have better regular season records than some of the division winners.

For example, a team in a weak division could win a division title with a 9-7 record. However, a team with a 14-2 record would be seeded lower than them if there happened to be a team in their division that went either 15-1 or 16-0. It is not always a surprise to see wild card teams beat division winners in the wild card games.

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NFL Wild Card Weekend and 2021 Playoff Results

NFC Wild Card Round

San Francisco 49ers 23‌, Dallas Cowboys 17

LA Rams 34‌, Arizona Cardinals 11

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31‌, Philadelphia Eagles 15

AFC Wild Card Round

Cincinnati Bengals 26‌, Las Vegas Raiders 19

Buffalo Bills 47‌, New England Patriots 17

Kansas City Chiefs 42‌, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

NFC Divisional Round

San Francisco 49ers 13‌, Green Bay Packers 10

LA Rams 30‌, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27

AFC Divisional Round

Cincinnati Bengals 19‌, Tennessee Titans 16

Kansas City Chiefs 42‌, Buffalo Bills 36

NFC Championship

LA Rams 20‌, San Francisco 49ers 17

AFC Championship

Cincinnati Bengals 27‌, Kansas City Chiefs 24

Super Bowl LVI

LA Rams 23‌, Cincinnati Bengals 20

2022 NFL Super Wild Card Weekend Schedule

  • Saturday, January 14th 2023: TBD vs TBD, 4:30PM ET on NBC
  • Saturday, January 14th 2023: TBD vs TBD, 8:15PM ET on CBS
  • Sunday, January 15th, 2023: TBD vs TBD, 1:00PM ET on FOX
  • Sunday, January 15th, 2023: TBD vs TBD, 4:30PM ET on CBS
  • Sunday, January 15th, 2023: TBD vs TBD, 8:15PM ET on NBC
  • Monday, January 16th, 2023: TBD vs TBD, 8:15PM ET on ESPN/ABC