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NFL playoff bracket, explained: How byes, seeding will work in expanded 2021 format

The NFL’s expanded playoff bracket has been a topic of conversation all season, but with the playoffs finally around the corner, it’s worth revisiting exactly how a 14-team field works in the first year of its existence.

The league made the move from 12 teams qualifying to 14 for the 2020 season. A lot of the reasoning comes back to interest and money, but it also creates a different playoff picture than NFL fans may be used to. There’s now a No. 7 seed to play for in each conference. There’s only one bye instead of two on each side, too. It forces a recalibration of how late-season results are viewed.

Below, we’ve broken down the new bracket, both to explain how it works if you’re unfamiliar or need a refreshers as well as to explain why it exists the way it does. For the first time, teams aren’t necessarily playing hard for the No. 2 seed and the bye that used to come with it, so we’ve laid out the reasons for that, too. At the end of the day, two more teams will be in the playoffs this season than ever before, and that should just mean two more teams worth of fun (not counting the NFC East, because yuck).

MORE: SN predicts the entire 2021 NFL playoff bracket

How many teams make the NFL playoffs?

A total of 14 teams make the NFL playoffs following the 2020 regular season. That’s broken down as seven teams from the NFC and seven teams from the AFC.

There’s a total of 32 teams in the NFL, so that works out to 43.75 percent of the teams advancing to play in the postseason. The seeding breaks down as the four division winners seeded Nos. 1-4 by record with the next three best records filling in three wild card spots.

The 14-team playoff field is an expansion for this season. Prior to 2020, 12 teams made the postseason with six from each conference. The only way it’s changed from a seeding standpoint is having a third wild card team added as the No. 7 seed.

NFL playoff bracket 2021

(SN illustration)

Here you can see how the NFL has broken down the playoff bracket in its new 14-team playoff field. Instead of two byes, just one team in each conference gets a first-round bye. Then the No. 2 seed plays No. 7, No. 3 plays No. 6 and No. 4 plays No. 5 on each side. The top seed faces the winner of the 4/5 game in the divisional round (if favorites win; otherwise, No. 1 plays worst remaining seed).

Despite the playoff expansion, the alteration of the bye total means that there’s the same number of rounds (although two additional playoff games overall). The wild card round will feature 12 teams competing, up from the previous eight, with 12 being the same number as the total qualifiers in past postseasons.¬†

Here’s a look at the latest NFL playoff bracket for 2021, updated through Week 17:

AFC

1. Kansas City Chiefs vs. 5. Ravens/6. Browns
2. Buffalo Bills vs. 3. Steelers/5. Ravens

1. Kansas City Chiefs (bye)
2. Buffalo Bills vs. 7. Indianapolis Colts
3. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. 6. Cleveland Browns
4. Tennessee Titans vs. 5. Baltimore Ravens

NFC

1. Green Bay Packers vs. 6. Los Angeles Rams
2. New Orleans Saints vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. Green Bay Packers (bye)
2. New Orleans Saints vs. 7. Chicago Bears
3. Seattle Seahawks vs. 6. Los Angeles Rams
4. Washington Football Team vs. 5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

How many teams get a first-round bye?

A total of two NFL teams get first-round byes in this postseason, one from the AFC and one from the NFC. That’s because of the expanded playoff field from six qualifiers to seven qualifiers in each conference. When six teams made it, two teams on each side got a bye, but that’s no longer the case.

The reason for the altered bye total is to end up in the divisional round with four teams on each side. That way, it splits evenly from eight teams alive to four teams alive to two teams in the Super Bowl. To do that in a 14-team bracket, you need 12 of the teams to play in the first round, because then you get six winners with the two teams on bye added in.

Why did the NFL expand the playoff field?

There’s a lot of angles to come at this question, but they basically all come down to money.

An expanded playoff field means conceptually more teams are in the hunt during the final weeks of the regular season, meaning more fan bases are invested in results. That makes the second half of the regular season more intense for more teams/fanbases. 

Once you’re in the playoffs, it also equals more attention because two extra fan groups are involved. Add in the alteration to the bye schedule that creates two more games in the first round, and it’s obvious that even just a two-team increase in the postseason means a ton to the NFL’s bottom line.¬†

Does the No. 2 seed have any benefit without a bye?

Now that the No. 2 seed in each conference doesn’t get a bye, there’s a lot less reason to play super hard to secure that spot. The main one is this: Two rounds of home-field advantage.

The No. 2 seed is guaranteed two rounds at home before potentially having to travel and play the No. 1 seed in the AFC championship. That of course requires a first-round win by the No. 2 seed to get that second home game.

The No. 3 seed is only guaranteed one home game, because if both Nos. 2 and 3 win in the first round, they’ll face off at No. 2’s home field in the second round.¬†

NFL playoff schedule 2021

Wild-card round

Saturday, Jan. 9

Matchup Start time TV channel
Colts at Bills 1:05 p.m. ET CBS
Rams at Seahawks 4:40 p.m. ET Fox
Buccaneers at Washington 8:15 p.m. ET NBC

Sunday, Jan. 10

Matchup Start time TV channel
Ravens at Titans 1:05 p.m. ET ESPN/ABC
Bears at Saints 4:40 p.m. ET CBS/Nickelodeon/Amazon Prime
Browns at Steelers 8:15 p.m. ET NBC

Divisional round

Saturday, Jan. 16

Matchup Start time TV channel
AFC Divisional Round (TBD at TBD) TBD TBD
NFC Divisional Round (TBD at TBD) TBD TBD

Sunday, Jan. 17

Matchup Start time TV channel
AFC Divisional Round (TBD at TBD) TBD TBD
NFC Divisional Round (TBD at TBD) TBD TBD

Conference championships

Sunday, Jan. 24

Matchup Away team Start time TV channel
NFC vs. NFC NFC TBD 3:05 p.m. ET Fox
AFC vs. AFC AFC TBD 6:40 p.m. ET CBS

Super Bowl 55

Sunday, Feb. 7

Matchup Start time TV channel
AFC champion vs. NFC champion 6:30 p.m. ET CBS

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