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How the Super Bowl Works

By: Kevin Bonsor & John Donovan  | 

Getting to the Super Bowl

Super Bowl
Raheem Mostert (No. 31) of the San Francisco 49ers rushes for an 11-yard touchdown during the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 19, 2020. The 49ers ultimately won, sending them to the Super Bowl. Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

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 regular season schedule — it's now 16 games — with a worthy record. Usually, 10 or more wins are required to make the playoffs, but that's no guarantee.

In 2021, the NFL has expanded its playoff field to 14 teams, up from 12. Four division winners from the NFL's two 16-team conferences — the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) — earn an automatic trip to the playoffs. In addition, the three non-division winners with the best overall record get in as wild card teams. The playoff teams are then ranked, or seeded, according to their finish in the conference, as follows:

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  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 wild card team with the second-best record
  7. The wild card team with the third-best record

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

  • Wild card round: The top seed in each conference automatically advances to the Divisional playoff round, their reward for their regular-season success. The three wild card teams in each conference travel to the home field of the three lower-seeded division winners. The No. 2 seed hosts the No. 7 seed, the No. 3 seed hosts the No. 6 seed, and the No. 4 seed hosts the No. 5 seed. Winners advance to the next round.
  • Divisional playoff round: Four teams in each conference (eight teams, total) are left after the wild card games. The top playoff seeds remaining in each conference have home-field advantage in this round and are matched up against the lowest seeds remaining.
  • Conference championship round: The two teams in each conference (four total) that survive the first two rounds meet to play for the conference championship. The team with the highest seed plays on their home field. The two conference champions advance to the Super Bowl.
  • Super Bowl: The game is played at a pre-determined site, typically on the last Sunday in January or the first Sunday in February. The 2021 Super Bowl (Super Bowl LV) will be Sunday, Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.