The NFL For Rookies – League Structure

NFL versus the Premier League

Most of you are familiar with the competitions that Premier League teams (and others in English football’s pyramid) compete for. Along with the League Championship, teams also compete concurrently for the League Cup (EFL Cup), and FA Cup. The top teams also earning a place in the different international competitions (UEFA Champions League or Europa League). These tournaments are very much separate from each other and are each prestigious in their own way for the winner. 

NFL League Structure

However, the National Football League (and American sports in general) operate their seasons a little differently. First, some background on the league structure. The NFL has 32 teams that divide into two conferences – American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Each conference is further divided into four divisions, containing four teams each (North, East, South and West). 


For the past three decades, NFL teams have played 16 games over a 17-week schedule. However, this will soon change, as owners have approved a plan to move to a 17 game season. The new schedule could start as soon as the 2021 season. Teams play an unbalanced schedule, with six games being played against the other teams in its division (home and away). The other opponents are determined based on a seasonal rotation. This is referred to as the ‘regular season’.

Post-Season: Determining a Champion

Immediately following this, the NFL conducts a knockout style tournament referred to as the NFL Playoffs. Seven teams from each conference qualify: the four divisional champions along with the three next-best. These three teams are referred to as the wild-card teams. Teams are then seeded, with the division winners seeded one to four and the wild-card teams five to seven.

The post-season tournament is made up of thirteen elimination games. The first twelve matches are always played at the higher-seeded team’s stadium. The Super Bowl venue is determined well before the season commences.

The seedings for the 2020 post-season games were as follows:

AFC Seeding 2020

1 – Kansas City ChiefsAFC West Division Winners
2 – Buffalo BillsAFC East Division Winners
3 – Pittsburgh SteelersAFC North Division Winners
4 – Tennessee TitansAFC South Division Winners
5 – Baltimore RavensWildcard Entrants
6 – Cleveland BrownsWildcard Entrants
7 – Indianapolis ColtsWildcard Entrants

NFC Seeding 2020

1 – Green Bay PackersNFC North Division Winners
2 – New Orleans SaintsNFC South Division Winners
3 – Seattle SeahawksNFC West Division Winners
4 – Washington Football TeamNFC East Division Winners
5 – Tampa Bay BuccaneersWildcard Entrants
6 – Los Angeles RamsWildcard Entrants
7 – Chicago BearsWildcard Entrants

Wild-Card Round

Using 2020 as our example the first round of matches would be:

AFCRavens (5) v Titans (4) – Colts (7) v Bills (2) – Browns (6) v Steelers (3).

NFCBuccaneers (5) v Washington (4) – Bears (7) v Saints (2) – Rams (6) v Seahawks (3).

In American sports, the fixtures tend to be written down the opposite way to English football. As you can see, the higher-seeded team plays at home but is written last. The best team from each conference sit out the wild-card round of games. In 2020 that was the Chiefs (AFC) and the Packers (NFC)

Divisional Playoffs

The top two seeds join in after the first round of knockout is completed for the Divisional Play-Offs.

AFC – Ravens v Bills – Browns v Chiefs.

NFC – Buccaneers v Saints – Rams v Packers.

Conference Champions

We then come to the final round for each conference. This decides who will be crowned the champions of the AFC and the NFC.

2020 Conference games were:

AFC – Bills v Chiefs

NFC – Buccaneers v Packers

At this stage, we have three teams (Bills, Chiefs and Packers) who have already been crowned Divisional Champions. Now the Chiefs and Bucs are also Conference Champions, though the Bucs didn’t win their division.

Super Bowl – League Champions

Raymond James Stadium – venue for Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida

The AFC and NFC champions then play each other in the league championship game. This game is the conclusion of the National Football League season and is known as the Super Bowl. 

For 2020, this marked the uncommon situation of a Wildcard entry not only getting to the Super Bowl, but winning it. Coincidentally, the Raymond James Stadium had been picked as the venue for Super Bowl LV. This meant that the Buccaneers were the first franchise to win a Super Bowl in their own stadium.

I mentioned above that the various cups in English/European football are very much separate from each other. This is NOT the case with the NFL. The post-season tournament/playoffs are very much a continuation of the regular season that preceded it. The playoff (Super Bowl) winner is the team that is recognized as the sole league champion, even if other teams had a better record during the regular season. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *