NFL tiebreaker rules: How are ties decided in division, playoff standings?

The NFL has a dozen tiebreaker rules for playoff seeding; a coin flip if all else fails

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

When the 17th game was added to the National Football League schedule in 2021, fans were concerned with how things were going to work out in the post-season. For the most part, NFL playoff seeding is easy to figure out.

The four division winners become the top four seeds in the playoffs from each respective conference, while the three teams that follow with the best remaining records make up the wild card spots. This means that seven teams from the AFC and seven from the NFC make up the playoff bracket.

But what happens when records are tied at the end of the season? How does the league determine who owns the tiebreaker when it comes to playoff standings?

NFL tiebreaker rules explained

Let's start at the top with the division winners. According to the NFL's tiebreaking protocols, the top record in the conference will earn the number one seed, but if division winners are tied with the same record, the tiebreaker would be the team's head-to-head record against the other team who tied for the same record in the standings. This is followed by their division record and then their record against common opponents. This is typically enough to do the trick in determining seeding in the event of a tie.

If somehow more tiebreakers are needed, the next tiebreaker would be their conference record. After that, the strength of victory rating comes into play (which is a metric that calculates the win percentages of opponents that a particular team has defeated during the season). From there, the team's strength of schedule could even come into play.

In the incredibly rare situation where two teams are somehow tied in every single department, the 12th and final option to determine a tie would simply be a coin flip. Considering how many factors come into play here, the odds of this happening are slim to none.

Here are all 12 tiebreaker rules in order in the event of a tie in post-season standings:

  1. Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs)
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games
  4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference
  5. Strength of victory
  6. Strength of schedule
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed
  8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed
  9. Best net points in common games
  10. Best net points in all games
  11. Best net touchdowns in all games
  12. Coin toss