NFL explained: How the regular season and playoffs work
Here's everything you need to know about the NFL season, including how the conferences work and the path to the Super Bowl.
When are NFL games played?
The NFL regular season starts the week after Labor Day, which is celebrated on the first Monday of September in the United States.
The first game is played on a Thursday night, and is usually a home game for the defending Super Bowl champions.
The remainder of the games are played on Sunday, except for one that is scheduled for Monday night.
Every week of the season follows this pattern – with one game on Thursday, one on Monday and the rest on Sunday – except for Thanksgiving weekend, which features three Thursday fixtures.
As of 2021, each team plays 17 games in the regular season rather than the previous 16.
The season is 18 weeks long, as each team plays 17 games with a pre-determined bye week somewhere between Week 6 and Week 14.
The first game of the 2022 season took place on 8 September, when the Buffalo Bills beat the defending Super Bowl champions, the Los Angeles Rams.
How does the NFL schedule work?
The 32 NFL teams are split into two conferences: the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference, which were formed when the NFL merged with the American Football League in 1970.
Each conference is made up of 16 teams, split into four divisions of four teams each – the North, South, East and West.
Every team in the NFL plays its three division rivals two times each in the regular season.
For example, the Kansas City Chiefs – who are in the NFL betting odds to win the Super Bowl – play six games this season against their fellow AFC West teams: the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers.
The rest of a team’s 17-game regular-season schedule is made up of six other opponents from inside its own conference, and four teams from outside of its conference.
How do the NFL playoffs work?
The NFL playoffs are made up of 14 teams – seven from each conference.
That includes the eight division winners, plus six wild cards: the three best teams from each conference who failed to win their division.
The teams in each conference are seeded from one to seven based on their regular season records, with the first seed in each conference given a first-round bye.
The first round of the playoffs is known as the Wild Card round. It features three division winners from each conference playing against wild card teams.
The next round is the Divisional round, where the top seed (which received a bye) in each conference plays the lowest-seeded winning team from the Wild Card round, and the other two winning teams from the Wild Card round face each other.
The four winning teams from the Divisional round advance to the Conference Championships and play for a place in the Super Bowl.
What is the Super Bowl?
The AFC and NFC champions meet in the NFL’s grand finale – the Super Bowl.
It is the biggest night on the American sporting calendar, with an estimated 91.6m viewers in America alone at Super Bowl LV in January 2021.
While all of the other major American sports championships are decided over a series of games, the Super Bowl is a one-off fixture, which certainly contributes to its popularity.
The game has gained enormous popularity among casual fans thanks to its halftime show – which has seen Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Beyonce perform at over the past three years – and its adverts, which are a cultural phenomenon in the US.
When the NFL playoffs start
The 2022-23 postseason kicks off with the Wild Card round on 14-16 January 2023.
The Divisional round takes place on 21-22 January, and the Conference round on 29 January.
Next is the Pro Bowl, which is an exhibition game featuring all-stars from the regular season. This takes place on 5 February.
Finally, the Super Bowl will be played at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on 12 February.