NFL Playoff Bracket Explains: Bye Bye, Seeding Will Work In The Expanded 2021 Format

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

The league moved from 12 teams to 14 for the 2020 season. A lot of the considerations relate to interest and money, but it also creates a different playoff picture than what NFL fans are used to. In every conference there is now the number 7 to play for. There’s also only one goodbye instead of two on each side. It forces the display of the late season results to be recalibrated.

Below we’ve broken down the new bracket to explain how it works when you’re unfamiliar or need a refresher, as well as to explain why it exists the way it works. For the first time, the teams don’t necessarily play hard for number 2 and the goodbye that came with it. That’s why we’ve set out the reasons for it. At the end of the day, there will be two more teams in the playoffs this season than ever before, and that should just mean two more teams that are fun (without 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 will contest the NFL playoffs after the 2020 regular season. There are seven NFC teams and seven AFC teams.

There are a total of 32 teams in the NFL, making 43.75 percent of the teams play in the postseason. The sowing collapses when the four division winners sown numbers 1 through 4 after the record, with the next three best records filling in three placeholder points.

The playoff field with 14 teams is an extension for this season. Before 2020, 12 teams made the postseason with six from each conference. The only way to change this from a sowing standpoint is to add a third wildcard team as bib number 7.

NFL playoff bracket 2021

(SN figure)

Here you can see how the NFL broken down the playoff bracket in their new 14-team playoff box. Instead of two goodbyes, only one team in each conference receives one goodbye in the first round. Then seed # 2 plays # 7, # 3 # 6, and # 4 # 5 on each side. The top seed meets the winner of the 4/5 game in the division round (if the favorites win; otherwise # 1 plays the worst remaining seed).

Despite the playoff expansion, changing the bye total means there will be the same number of rounds (although there will be two additional playoff games in total). There are 12 teams competing in the wild card round, up from the previous eight, with 12 being the same number as the total number of qualifiers in previous postseason.

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


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


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

How many teams get a goodbye in the first round?

A total of two NFL teams will get a reunion in the first round this postseason, one from the AFC and one from the NFC. This is due to the expanded playoff field from six qualifiers to seven qualifiers in each conference. When six teams made it, two teams on each side said their goodbyes, but that’s no longer the case.

The reason for the changed bye-bye total is that it ends in the division round with four teams on each side. That way, it’s evenly split from eight live teams to four live teams to two teams in the Super Bowl. To do this in a 14 team group, you need 12 of the teams to play in the first round, because then you will get six winners with the two teams added goodbye.

Why did the NFL expand the playoff field?

There are many aspects to this question, but it is essentially all about money.

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

Once you’re in the playoffs, it also means more exposure as there are two additional fan groups involved. Add in the bye schedule change that manages two more games in the first round, and it’s obvious that just adding two teams in the postseason would add a ton to the bottom line for the NFL.

Does seed # 2 have any use without a reunion?

Now that the number 2 doesn’t get a reunion at any conference, there are far fewer reasons to play super hard to secure that spot. The most important thing is: two rounds of home 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 win in the first round by the number 2 in order to reach the second home game.

The number 3 is only guaranteed a home game, because if both numbers 2 and 3 win in the first round, they will meet home field no.2 in the second round.

NFL playoff schedule 2021

Wildcard round

Saturday January 9th

Match Start time TV channel
Stallions on bills 1:05 p.m. ET CBS
Aries at Seahawks 4:40 p.m. ET Fox
Buccaneers in Washington 8:15 p.m. ET NBC

Sunday January 10th

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

Divisional round

Saturday 16th January

Match Start time TV channel
AFC Divisional Round (TBD at TBD) TBD TBD
NFC division round (TBD at TBD) TBD TBD

Sunday 17th January

Match Start time TV channel
AFC Divisional Round (TBD at TBD) TBD TBD
NFC division round (TBD at TBD) TBD TBD

Conference championships

Sunday January 24th

Match Visiting team Start time TV channel
NFC versus NFC NFC TBD 3:05 p.m. ET Fox
AFC versus AFC AFC TBD 6:40 p.m. ET CBS

Super Bowl 55

Sunday February 7th

Match Start time TV channel
AFC champion versus NFC champion 6:30 p.m. ET CBS

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