How the Super Bowl Works

By: Kevin Bonsor  | 

Getting to the Super Bowl

Super Bowl XXXVI: David Patten of the New England Patriots catches a touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Super Bowl XXXVI: David Patten of the New England Patriots catches a touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Photo courtesy NFL

­ To win the Super Bowl, a team must first make it to the big game. That's no easy task. The first goal of any NFL team is to survive the grueling 16-game regular season schedule with a worthy record. Usually, 10 or more wins are required to make the playoffs, but 10 wins are no guarantee for a playoff berth.

The NFL's structure also has an effect on which teams reach the post season. The NFL consists of two 16-team conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC), which are subdivided into four four-team divisions (North, South, East, and West). Each division winner earns an automatic trip to the playoffs. In addition, the two non-division winners with the best overall record get in as wild card teams. The playoff teams in each conference are then ranked, or seeded, according to their finish as follows: ­


  1. The division winner with the best record
  2. The division winner with the second-best record
  3. The division winner with the third-best record
  4. The division winner with the fourth-best record
  5. The wild card team with the best record
  6. The second wild card team

There are four rounds in the NFL playoffs. Both conferences use the same format. Here is a breakdown of each round:

  • Wild card round - The two top seeds automatically advance to the Divisional playoff round, which is their reward for their regular season success. The two wild card teams travel to the home field of the lower-seeded division winners. The sixth seeded team plays the third seeded team, and the fifth seed plays the fourth seed.
  • Divisional playoff round - The two top seeds have home field advantage in this round no matter who wins in the wild card round. The match ups depend on the results of the wild card round. If seed 6 wins, it plays seed 1 in the Divisional playoffs. However, if seeds 3 and 4 win their respective games, seed 1 plays seed 4.
  • Conference championship round - The two teams that survive the first two rounds meet to play for the conference championship. The team with highest seed plays on their home field. The conference champion advances to the Super Bowl.
  • Super Bowl - The world championship game, where the two conference champions play in a pre-determined site. Typically, the Super Bowl is played on the last Sunday in January or the first Sunday in February.