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2023/24 NFL season: Tiebreaker Rules

A spot in the NFL playoffs is much prized for all 32 teams in the league and sometimes the battle can go right to the wire.

There are four divisions in both the AFC and the NFC and the winners of each are guaranteed a spot in the postseason.

However, there are also three wildcard places available in each conference too and these can be settled by the tightest of margins. 

Here is how those playoff places are sorted out if it seems to be too close to call.

To break a tie in a division

A total of 12 teams will not win their division in each conference and it is perfectly possible that two teams that play in, say, the AFC North - like the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers - could be in the wildcard shake-up with identical win-loss-tied records from their 17 regular-season games.

Divisional rivals play each other home and away, so the first and logical place to start is the head-to-head record between the two teams.

If that fails to separate them, then their divisional record will be taken into consideration, so that is their results from the four games they played against the other two teams that make up their division - in this case, Baltimore and Cincinnati.

If that can’t break the tie, then it will be their record against common teams, the franchises against whom they have both played that season.

Their records against the other teams in their Conference will then be taken into account, before it then starts to get a bit more complicated.

It will then be what is known as the strength of victory, which means the number of wins that have been earned during the season by the teams they have beaten. 

And if that remains the same, then the strength of schedule will come into play, namely the combined record of all the teams they have played.

Should the teams still not be separated, then the best combined rankings among their conference opponents, in terms of points scored and allowed.

The lower the score the better the number, so if Pittsburgh played New England and the Patriots were ranked first in points scored and second in points allowed, they would score three.

If they also played Kansas City and the Chiefs were ranked eighth in points scored and seventh in points allowed, that game would be worth 15 and so on.

It would then be a case of the best net points in common games, the best net points in all games and the best net touchdowns in all games.

And then, finally, if the teams still somehow cannot be separated, then it will all come down to the toss of a coin.

To break a tie in different divisions

It is more common that teams have the same record but play in different divisions and the situation gets a whole lot simpler if they have played during the season, because the head-to-head record is the first consideration.

It will then come down to their conference record before common games then come into the equation, but that will not happen unless there are at least four teams who have played both of the two wildcard hopefuls.

The combined rankings of the conference teams in terms of points scored and conceded, as described above, will then be taken into account with the same policy then followed until the coin toss that is used to separate teams in the same division.

What if there are three teams with the same record?

If there are three teams with identical records that need to be separated in the wildcard race then the same system will be used, with the first team to fall behind eliminated from the process.

It will then start again from point one to decipher which team progresses, and the same system will be used to identify where the teams are ranked when the playoffs finally get under way.

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