Football For Dummies
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After the regular football season, the National Football League (NFL) schedule moves into the playoffs, which decide who advances to the Super Bowl. In regular-season games, teams compete for the best win-loss records, and those teams with the best records advance to the playoffs.

The NFL schedules all those regular-season games — 256 in a typical season — to separate the good teams from the bad. On every level of sports, people want to declare a champion. In the NFL, a total of 12 teams qualify for what amounts to the road to the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl is the NFL championship game. It pits the winner of NFL's American Football Conference (AFC) against the champion of the NFL's National Football Conference (NFC). The game was born out of the merger agreement between the former American Football League and the NFL in 1966.

Wild card and divisional playoff games

Each conference has four divisions: North, South, East, West. Six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, with the four division winners qualifying automatically. These winners are joined by two teams called wild card teams, who qualify based on the win-loss records of the remaining teams in each conference that didn’t finish first in their respective divisions.

The two division winners with the highest winning percentages host second-round games, skipping the first round of competition. The third and fourth division winners host the wild card teams in the first round.

The winners of the two wild card games advance to the second round of contests, called divisional playoff games. The lowest-rated wild card winner plays the division winner with the best record, and the other wild card winner plays the division winner with the second-best record. Both division winners enjoy home field advantage, meaning that they host the games.

Conference championship games

For the Conference Championship games (the third round), any surviving division champion automatically hosts the game. If two division winners survive, the team with the better winning percentage hosts the championship game. If the two surviving teams have identical records, home field is based on how the two teams performed in head-to-head competition during the season, and then on who had the best winning percentage in conference games.

The Super Bowl is such a huge television and fan attraction that cities routinely bid for the game, offering to defray many of the league’s expenses for hotels and travel. In fact, the Super Bowl is so large that cities are selected three to four years in advance. This gives the cities the necessary time to prepare.

In the two weeks between the two conference championship games and the Super Bowl, plenty of hype and hoopla about the game arises. The two teams usually arrive in the host city on the Sunday prior to the game, along with more than 2,500 members of the media. The event has a national flavor to it.

With ticket prices from $500 to $700, and most fans paying five times that amount via ticket scalping, the Super Bowl has become more of a corporate event than a bastion for hard-core football fans. You almost have to be somebody important or know somebody important to attend. The Commissioner’s Party — which owners, coaches, and NFL executives attend on the Friday night prior to the game — is an even tougher ticket to acquire.

About This Article

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Howie Long is a former Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders defensive end with eight Pro Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl victory, and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is a commentator on FOX NFL Sunday. John Czarnecki has reported on the NFL since 1979 and consulted for FOX NFL Sunday since it began in 1994. He has received four Sports Emmys.

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