The term “wild card” in football refers to a playoff spot occupied by the top non-division winner in each conference. Wild cards add an extra layer of excitement to the postseason chase. This in-depth guide covers everything you need to know about wild card qualification, tiebreaker procedures, historical impact, and strategic factors that make wild card races so riveting down the stretch.
What is an NFL Wild Card?
In both the AFC and NFC conferences, four teams qualify for the playoffs in each conference:
- The three division winners (winners of the NFC/AFC North, South, East, and West divisions).
- One wild card team – the non-division winner with the best record.
So the wild card spot goes to the top second-place team with the best overall finish.
Wild Card Tiebreaking Procedures
If multiple teams are tied for a wild card spot, tiebreakers determine who advances:
- Head-to-head record between tied teams
- Division record
- Record against common opponents
- Conference record
- Strength of victory (combined record of defeated opponents)
- Strength of schedule (combined opponents’ record)
The first team to win a tiebreaker earns the wild card berth.
Number of Wild Cards per Conference
For many years, there was only one wild card team from each conference. But the NFL expanded the playoffs prior to the 2020 season:
- 2 wild card teams per conference
- 7 total playoff teams per conference
- Only the #1 division winner receives a first round bye now
More spots increased clubs’ chances and added excitement to the wild card races.
Wild Card Playoff Format
The wild card round features the #2 division winner hosting the #7 wild card, and #3 division winner hosting #6 wild card.
- Wild card games are win-or-go-home one-off matches.
Wild card winners advance to face the top seeds in the conference semifinals, while division winners eliminated.
Notable Wild Card Super Bowl Champions
Despite being underdogs, these wild card teams got hot in the playoffs and won the Super Bowl:
- 1980 Oakland Raiders – First wild card ever to win Super Bowl after 4-game win streak on the road.
- 1997 Denver Broncos – Benefitted from big wild card upset of Chiefs to start playoff run.
- 2000 Baltimore Ravens – Dominant wild card defense powered championship march.
- 2007 New York Giants – After close wild card win, shocked 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
- 2010 Green Bay Packers – QB Aaron Rodgers carried team through wild card to first title.
Wild cards face longer roads but their dangerous mix of momentum and underdog mentality can propel long playoff journeys.
Notable Wild Card Race Finishes
Wild card races often provide late-season drama right down to final snaps:
- 2018 Baltimore Ravens – Took 6th seed by beating Browns in finale to edge Steelers on tiebreaker.
- 2015 New York Jets – Needing win in last game, Fitzpatrick’s late TD pass clinched wild card berth.
- 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers – Tight win in finale coupled with losses elsewhere put Steelers in playoffs at 8-8.
- 2008 New England Patriots – Lost wild card tiebreaker to Dolphins after Brady-less collapse without injured star QB.
- 1999 Dallas Cowboys – Loss in finale cost 8-8 Cowboys wild card spot, ending streak of 5 straight playoff appearances.
The wild card injects suspense into determining the final playoff participants every year.
Strategic Impacts of the Wild Card
The wild card structure influences team decisions and fan experiences:
- More clubs remain in contention deeper into the season.
- Teams may rest starters once playoff seeds lock rather than fighting for division titles.
- Winning the division insulates teams from precarious wild card path.
- Fans have more games with playoff stakes during regular season.
- Coaching hot seats cool with surprise playoff runs.
The wild card system heightens engagement league-wide down the regular season stretch.
Wild Card Odds and Probability Factors
Teams on the playoff bubble must assess odds to chart wild card strategy:
- Odds fluctuate weekly based on record, opponents’ schedules, injuries.
- Strong finishes and head-to-head control boost probability.
- High-variance teams with upset potential may sneak in.
- Clubs eliminated from division title turn focus to wild card only.
- Contenders must balance playoff push urgency versus rest and health.
Parsing wild card probabilities shapes critical late-season decisions.