Just two weeks remain in the regular season and clubs are starting to circle closer to their final playoff spot. Already, we have eight teams that have at least clinched a postseason berth, but the actual seeding of the playoffs has yet to be determined in both the AFC and NFC. 

That could get a bit tricky as we come down to the wire with the regular-season finale. With four teams in the NFC owning the same record at 11-3 after Week 15 and a number of playoff teams in the AFC with similar records, tiebreakers will likely play a key role in how the playoff picture ultimately comes into focus. 

So how does that all work, anyway? Well, we’re here to explain all that. Below, you’ll see how the foundation of determining playoff teams is produced, how the tie-breaking procedures play out, and we’ll also give some 2019 examples when applicable (Rules and tie breaking procedures via NFL.com): 

The six playoff teams from each conference are seeded as such: 

  1. The division champion with the best record. 
  2. The division champion with the second-best record. 
  3. The division champion with the third-best record. 
  4. The division champion with the fourth-best record. 
  5. The wild-card team with the best record. 
  6. The wild-card team with the second-best record. 

First and foremost it comes down to winning your division. That’s why we’ll see either a 9-7 or 8-8 club from the NFC East host a team like the 11-3 San Francisco 49ers this season. Because either the Cowboys or Eagles will have claimed their division, they’ll host a club (likely 49ers or Seahawks) that has seen more regular-season success in terms of their record but couldn’t bring home the division crown.  

Outside of that wrinkle, it’s a pretty straightforward concept. Now on to the tiebreakers. 

Division tiebreaker (two teams)

  1. Head-to-head record.
  2. Division record.
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
  4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  5. Strength of victory. 
  6. Strength of schedule. 
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed. 
  8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
  9. Best net points in common games. 
  10. Best net points in all games. 
  11. Best net touchdowns in all games. 
  12. Coin flip. 

Example(s): This situation is unfolding in a number of areas throughout the league. In the NFC West, the Seahawks currently have the No. 1 seed over the 49ers thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker win in Week 10. These two clubs meet again in Week 17, so there is a chance that we may dive deeper into the tiebreaking scenarios. If the 49ers win and break the head-to-head tiebreaker, we would then have to account for the division record. After that, we would look at their winning percentage against common opponents and whichever team’s is highest would claim the division. 

Who knows, maybe we can have the tiebreakers go all the way down to Step 12 and have one epic coin flip. We can’t rule that out just yet.

In the NFC East, if the Cowboys win Sunday against the Eagles, they’ll lock in the head-to-head tiebreaker and the No. 4 seed, beating Philly in Week 16 and earlier in Week 7. A similar situation would unfold in the AFC East this weekend as well. If the Patriots beat the Bills at Gillette Stadium, they would secure the head-to-head tiebreaker and win the division. 

Division tiebreaker (three or more teams) 

  1. Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games among the clubs) 
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division. 
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games. 
  4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference. 
  5. Strength of victory. 
  6. Strength of schedule. 
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed. 
  8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed. 
  9. Best net points in all common games. 
  10. Best net points in all games. 
  11. Best net touchdowns in all games. 
  12. Coin flip. 

Example(s): These division tiebreakers also account for the top seeding in the NFC. Unlike the AFC where things are playing out a bit more traditionally, in the NFC we have four teams (Seahawks, Packers, Saints, and 49ers) owning an 11-3 record heading into Week 16. As we explained earlier, San Francisco is currently at the bottom of the barrel of these four and sits as the No. 5 seed because they do not have the division lead. 

As for why Seattle is above Green Bay, that tiebreaker triggers Step 3 with the Seahawks owning a better winning percentage against common opponents. Step 4 is triggered in their tiebreaker over New Orleans thanks to a better conference record. Green Bay also edges out the New Orleans for the No. 2 seed currently because of their conference record as well. 

Wild-card tiebreaker (two teams) 

  1. Head-to-head. 
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference. 
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games (minimum of four). 
  4. Strength of victory. 
  5. Strength of schedule. 
  6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed. 
  7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed. 
  8. Best net points in conference games. 
  9. Best net points in all games. 
  10. Best net touchdowns in all games. 
  11. Coin flip. 

Example(s): Despite sharing an 8-6 record after Week 15, the Steelers sit in the final playoff spot in the AFC at the moment over the Titans. Because they didn’t play one another in the regular season, the tiebreaker falls to Step 2 and accounts for their conference record. Pittsburgh is 6-4 against the AFC, while Tennessee is 6-5. 

Wild-card tiebreaker (three or more teams) 

Note: If two teams remain tied after a third or other clubs are eliminated, the tiebreaker reverts to Step 1 of the applicable two-club format.

  1. Apply division tiebreaker to eliminate all but the highest-ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to step 2. The original seeding within a division upon application of the division tie breaker remains the same for all subsequent applications of the procedure that are necessary to identify the two wild-card participants. 
  2. Head-to-head sweep. 
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference. 
  4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four. 
  5. Strength of victory. 
  6. Strength of schedule. 
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed. 
  8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed. 
  9. Best net points in conference games. 
  10. Best net points in all games. 
  11. Best net touchdowns in all games. 
  12. Coin toss.