From 1920 to 1931, there was no championship game and the league championship was formalized by a vote of owners at their spring meetings. Unofficially at first, the tiebreaker for the championship favored the latest head-to-head meeting between the tied teams, and presumably working back to an earlier matchup if that game was tied.
In 1932, a tie between the Portsmouth Spartans (today’s Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears led both teams to mutually agree to hold a playoff game for the championship. This one-game playoff for the league title was added to the regular-season standings, and actually caused the Spartans to drop to third place with the loss.
A championship game has been scheduled for every season since 1933. Until the Super Bowl era, the winners of the two divisions met for the NFL Championship. If there was a tie in the standings for a division, a one-game playoff would break the tie to determine the team to advance to the championship game, with the home field determined by coin flip. (These games did not affect the standings as the 1932 game had.) In case of a three-way tie, which never happened, there would have been a two-game playoff. A series of coin flips (which occasionally happened) would determine which two teams played first to advance to the playoff game with the third team.
A one-game playoff was used to break these ties in the standings:
- 1941 Western Division
- 1943 Eastern Division
- 1947 Eastern Division
- 1950 American Conference and National Conference
- 1952 National Conference
- 1957 Western Conference
- 1958 Eastern Conference
- 1963 AFL Eastern Division
- 1965 Western Conference
- 1968 AFL Western Division
Overtime was officially added to the bylaws for the one-game playoffs in 1941, since a team had to advance to the Championship games. The bylaws were amended in 1946 to include sudden-death championship games.
In 1967, the NFL moved to a prescheduled 4-team playoff for the league title. The AFL used a similar format in 1969, prior to merging with the NFL. This began a system of breaking ties through multiple methods, and ended an era of the one-game playoff. The following tables illustrate the various tiebreakers that were in place every season.
The AFL had a provision to use the division tiebreaker in 1969 to break a tie for the second playoff seed in either division.
|1.||Pts ± H2H||H2H||H2H||H2H||H2H/Sweep||H2H||H2H||H2H|
|2.||>Yrs DIV Title||DIV||DIV||DIV||DIV (skip >2 tms)||DIV||DIV||DIV|
|4.||Pts ± H2H||Pts ± H2H||Pts ± H2H||Loss COM||COM||COM||CONF|
|5.||*||Rating DIV||Pts ± DIV (avg)||SoS||Pts ± DIV||Pts ± DIV||SoV|
|6.||Coin flip||Rank DIV||Pts ± CONF (avg)||Pts ± COM||Pts ±||Pts ±||SoS|
|7.||Coin flip||Pts ±||TD ± COM||TD ±||SoS||Rank CONF|
|8.||Coin flip||Pts ±||SoS||TD ±||Rank NFL|
|9.||Coin flip||Coin flip||Coin flip||Pts ± COM|
Conference tiebreakers are used to break ties between teams from different divisions. Initially, they were used only to determine a wild card team, but later included conference seeding and home-field advantage as the playoffs expanded.
In most years, if all of the tied teams were in the same division, the tie has been broken using the divisional tiebreakers, even if it is to determine a conference seeding. 1970 and 1978, when the conference tiebreakers were in place exclusively for wild-card ties between same-division teams, were exceptions.
|1.||1 per DIV (>2 tms)||H2H||1 per DIV (>2 tms)||Sweep||Sweep||Sweep||1 per DIV||1 per DIV|
|2.||H2H||CONF (’75†)||Sweep||COM (2 min)||CONF||CONF||Sweep||Sweep|
|3.||CONF||Pts ± H2H||CONF†||SoS||Pts ±||COM (min 4)||CONF||CONF|
|4.||*||Rating CONF||Pts ± H2H||Pts ±||TD ±||Pts ± CONF||COM (min 4)||COM (min 4)|
|5.||Coin flip||Rank CONF||Pts ± CONF (avg)||TD ±||SoS||Pts ±||Pts ± CONF||SoV|
|6.||Coin flip||Pts ±||Coin flip||Coin flip||SoS||Pts ±||SoS|
|7.||Coin flip||TD ±||SoS||Rank CONF|
|8.||Coin flip||TD ±||Rank NFL|
|9.||Coin flip||Pts ± CONF|
- H2H, DIV, COM, CONF: Win-loss record in head-to-head, division, common, and conference games.
- If Sweep, then one team in a tie of 3+ teams must have beaten or lost to all other teams in the tie (but head-to-head for 2-team ties)
- Skip the tiebreaker step if a minimum number of games isn’t met, where indicated
- Skip the tiebreaker step if it is noted with a dagger† and tied teams haven’t played the same number of games
- Loss COM: Fewer total number of losses in common games (½ for ties)
- Pts ±: Differential in points in all games.
- When it’s followed by H2H, DIV, COM, or CONF, then the point differential is only in those games
- 1 per DIV: eliminate intradivisional ties first, leaving no more than 1 team from a division in a conference tiebreaker.
- SoV: Strength of victory (aggregate W-L of teams beaten, counting twice if beaten twice)
- SoS: Strength of schedule (aggregate W-L of teams played, counting twice if played twice)
- Rank: Sum of rankings of Points Per Game Scored + Allowed in all games. (A team 1st in points scored + 4th in points allowed has a rank of 5.)
- When it’s DIV or CONF, then it applies to ranking within the division or conference teams, but counting all games
- Rating: Similar to the Rank method, but instead of all games, it only applies to points per game in division or conference games, whichever is indicated
- TD ±: Differential in touchdowns in all games, or in common games where indicated
- * The tiebreaking procedures put in place before the 1970 AFL-NFL merger included a step that would eliminate the team that was most recently in the postseason. However, the procedure specifically stated this step was not in force for the 1970 season. Before the 1971 season, the tiebreakers were revised, so this provision was never officially in place.
- >Yrs DIV Title: prior to the merger, if the head-to-head point differential was 0, the division champion would be the team that went the longest without a division title.
Note that a W-L record disregarded tie games prior to 1972, so a 4-1-1 record calculated only the 5 untied games (4 ÷ 5 = .800). Since then, ties count as a half-win (4½ ÷ 6 = .750).
In the 1982 strike season, teams were seeded 1-8 for a modified playoff tournament using the conference standings only. Division standings and tiebreakers were not used that year.