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Untying the standings: the history of the NFL playoff tiebreaker systems

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.

Division

The AFL had a provision to use the division tiebreaker in 1969 to break a tie for the second playoff seed in either division.

1967-69 1970 1971-75 1976-77 1978 1979 1980-2001 2002—
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
3. CONF CONF (’75) CONF COM CONF CONF COM
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
10. Pts ±
11. TD ±
12. Coin flip

Conference

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.

1970 1971-75 1976-77 1978 1979 1980-89 1990-2001 2002—
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
10. Pts ±
11. TD ±
12. Coin flip
  • 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.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor-in-chief and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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11 thoughts on “Untying the standings: the history of the NFL playoff tiebreaker systems

  1. You have “equal gms” applying to conference record in 1977 alone, but it appears to have applied in the 1975 tiebreaker between the Vikings and Rams.

  2. 1.) What is “1 per DIV (>2 tms)” mean for Conference tiebreakers in 1970 & 1976-77?
    2.) The paragraph above the Conf chart starting with “In most years…” may be missing some words or may be misinterpreted.

    1. If there are more than 2 teams in the tiebreaker, but 2 of them are from the same division, then you remove the intradivisional tie first.
      Don’t get tripped up with “in most years,” as largely this followed a format of division teams use the division tiebreakers, even if it is for a conference seed/wild card. There are some narrow exceptions in a few years, which are noted

  3. Are you saying that in 1970, they broke division ties first, but used conference tiebreakers to break the division ties? That’s what I get from reading the preceding paragraph about the 1970 and 1978 exception years.

    From your response to TD Tom, I understand what “1 per DIV (> 2 tms)” means. However, is this different somehow than “1 per DIV” in “1990-2001” and “2002-“?
    Maybe to be consistent, “(>2 tms)” should be dropped from “1 per DIV” in “1970” and “1976-77”, or it should be added to “1 per DIV” in “1990-2001” and “2002-“.

    In that paragraph preceding the conference tiebreakers chart, the verb tense feels off. Instead of “teams have been”, “tie has been”, and “they are being”. I would use “teams were”, “tie was”, and “they were”.

    Actually, in the last case, I think “even if being” or “even when being” makes more sense than “even they are being” or “even they were”. In any case, it feels like the word “if” or “when” is missing.

  4. In 1970, as I understand it, in a 3-team tiebreaker for the wild-card seed with 2 teams from 1 division, you revert to the divisional tiebreaker to eliminate the intradivision tie from the mix, and restart the conference tiebreaker with the 2 remaining teams. However, in a 2-team tiebreaker with both teams from the same division, the “1 per DIV” criteria does not apply, because conference tiebreakers were to be used in all cases to make the final determination on the 4th seed (wild card).
    Went in and cleared up some of the introductory language. It’s difficult when the source material is not written to be concise and uses differing terminology over the years for the same thing (or worse, *nearly* the same thing). I suspect we are going to keep debugging the tables for a while, but we finally published this after on-again, off-again edits for over a year.

  5. Ben, I would like to be clear about wild card tiebreakers if multiple teams are involved. If 2 or more teams are from the same division, has it ALWAYS been that the division tiebreakers eliminated teams first? I bring you to 1984 as an example. What would have happened if Washington and the Rams lost, but Dallas and the Giants won. That would have created a four-way tie at 10-6. Dallas, Washington, and LA would have had 7-5 conference records and NY 8-6. NY and Washington swept Dallas. Which two teams go in that scenario and why?

  6. Ben, I actually have a better situation than the one I posted a couple of weeks ago. I figured out the other one, but the situation that occurred in 1990 is more confusing. For the final wild card spot, Pittsburgh, Houston, and Seattle were tied at 9-7. If the tiebreakers that say division teams need to be eliminated first, Houston would eliminate Pittsburgh because of a division record(4-2 to 2-4), which left Houston and Seattle. Seattle defeated Houston, 13-10, in Week 13, so shouldn’t Seattle have made the playoffs in 1990 over Houston because of it. I can see that Houston had a better conference record than Pittsburgh and Seattle, but shouldn’t Pittsburgh have been removed from the equation with division tiebreakers?

  7. I am almost certain that in the 1970s the second tie breaker for division tiles after head to head won/lost record was net points in head to head games. You have it listed fourth when it should be second.

    I distinctly remember in 1977 when the Bears and Vikings finished tied for the NFC Central title at 9-5, that the Vikings were awarded the division title because they had won the first meeting between the two teams 22-16, while the Bears and won the second meeting by only 10-7. In fact, I recall while watching the second game that the announcers were often referring to the fact that the Bears needed to win by more than six points to gain the tie breaker, and it was amazing that even as Walter Payton broke the single game rushing record that day, the Bears could only score 10 points and win by three, therefore blowing the tie breaker.

  8. The first tie-breaker for division ties was net points in head to head games up until at least 1977. That is why the Vikings were division champions in 1977 over the Bears when both teams went 9-5 and they split their two games with each other. But the Vikings won the first game by 6 points and the Bears only won the second meeting by 3, so the Vikings got the tie-breaker.
    You have it (Pts +/- H2H) listed fourth for 1970-77, but it should be listed first.

  9. This is from a story in The Chicago Tribune by Dan Pierson dated 11-1-87.

    “The Bears won the rest of their games and finished in a tie with the Vikings at 9-5. But the Vikings won the tiebreaker on head-to-head point differential. They had defeated the Bears 22-16 on Oct. 16 on a fake field goal that turned into a touchdown in overtime. Had Pardee kicked the field goal on Nov. 20 instead of running Payton, a 13-7 victory would have tied the Vikings` 6-point margin and given the Bears the division crown based on the next tiebreaker, division point differential. Instead, the Bears went into the playoffs as a wild-card team and lost in the first round to the Dallas Cowboys 37-7.

    The following year, the NFL changed the tiebreaking rules, eliminating head-to-head point differential as one of the determining factors.

    Payton`s greatest individual moment turned into an unfortunate moment for the Bears. They both had to wait seven more years to win their first division title.”

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