How the NFL Is Organized

New York Jets playing Washington, DC Redskins in pro football game at Giants Stadium, New Jersey.
Dennis K. Johnson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

At this time, the NFL consists of 32 teams divided into two conferences, which are then divided into a series of divisions based largely on geographical location.


For many years, the NFL operated under a simple two-division format before transitioning to a four-division structure in 1967. The AFL-NFL merger just three years later, however, expanded the NFL by ten teams and forced another restructuring.

Today, the NFL is currently divided into two conferences with 16 teams in each. The AFC (American Football Conference) consists mainly of teams that were originally in the AFL (American Football League), while the NFC (National Football Conference) is made up of mostly pre-merger NFL franchises.

AFC Divisions

For 32 years, the NFL operated under a six-division format. But in 2002, when expansion pushed the league to 32 teams, a shift was made to today's eight-division format. The American Football Conference (AFC) is divided into four divisions.

In the AFC East is the:
Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, and New York Jets

The AFC North has the:
Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers

In the NFC South is the:
Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans

And the AFC West consists of:
Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, and San Diego Chargers

NFC Divisions

In the National Football Conference (NFC), the NFC East is home to the:
Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins

The NFC North contains the:
Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, and Minnesota Vikings

The NFC South consists of the:
Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The NFC West is made up of the:
Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and St. Louis Rams


Each year, generally beginning in early August, every NFL team plays a four-game preseason, with the exception the two participants in the annual Hall of Fame game, which traditionally kicks off the preseason. Those two teams will play in five exhibition contests each.

Regular Season

The NFL's regular season consists of 17 weeks with each team playing 16 games. During the course of the regular season — generally between weeks 4 and 12 — each team is given a week off, which is commonly referred to as a bye week. The goal of each team during the regular season is to post the best record of the teams in their division, which guarantees a postseason appearance.


The NFL playoffs are made up annually of the 12 teams that qualify for the postseason based on their regular-season performance. Six teams in each conference battle it out for the opportunity to represent their conference in the Super Bowl. As mentioned above, a team can guarantee a berth in the playoffs by finishing the regular season with the best record in their division. But that only qualifies eight of the 12 teams that make up the playoff field.

The final four spots (two in each conference) are made up by the top-two non-division-winning teams in each conference based on record. These are commonly referred to as Wild Card berths. A series of tiebreakers is used to determine who advances to the playoffs if two or more teams finish the regular season with the same record.

The playoff tournament is based on a single-elimination format, which means that once a team loses they are eliminated from the postseason. The winners each week advance to the next round. The two teams in each conference that posted the best regular-season records receive byes in the first round of the playoffs and automatically advance to the second round.

Super Bowl

The playoff tournament eventually results in just two teams left standing; one from the American Football Conference and one from the National Football Conference. The two conference champions will then face off in the NFL's championship game, which is called the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl has been played since 1967, although the first few years the game wasn't actually called the Super Bowl until later. The moniker was actually affixed to the big game a few years later and attached to the first few championships retroactively.

The Super Bowl is generally played on the first Sunday in February in a predetermined location.