When Did the NFL Start Wild Card Games?

Photo of author

By Monica Bates

The NFL is the most popular professional football league in the world, and it has a rich history that spans over a century. One of the most exciting aspects of the NFL playoffs is the Wild Card round, which pits two of the best teams from each conference against each other in a do-or-die game.

But when did this thrilling tradition begin? Let’s take a closer look.

Origins of the NFL Playoffs

The NFL playoffs date back to 1933, when the league was divided into two divisions: East and West. The winners of each division faced off in the NFL Championship Game, which was played annually until 1967. In 1967, the NFL merged with its rival league, the AFL, and expanded to four divisions: East, Central, West, and Coastal.

The Advent of Wild Card Games

It wasn’t until 1978 that the first Wild Card games were introduced to the NFL playoffs. The league expanded to five teams from each conference with three division winners and two Wild Card teams qualifying for postseason play.

The Wild Card teams were determined by having second-place finishers from each division compete against each other. The winners advanced to face one of three division champions in their respective conferences.

The Evolution of Wild Card Games

The number of playoff teams increased again in 1990 when two more Wild Card spots were added to each conference bracket for a total of six playoff teams per conference.

In 2002, another expansion took place with an additional division added to both conferences (North), bringing their total up to eight divisions across the entire league. This change allowed for more divisional games throughout the regular season and set up more opportunities for head-to-head matchups between potential playoff opponents.

Impact on Playoffs

Since their inception over four decades ago, Wild Card games have provided some of the most exciting moments in NFL playoff history. They have given underdog teams a chance to make a deep playoff run and have set up some of the most memorable matchups in recent memory.

The Wild Card round is often unpredictable and can produce upsets that shake up the entire playoffs. It’s one of the reasons fans look forward to it every year.


Wild Card games have been a staple of the NFL playoffs since 1978, adding an extra layer of excitement to an already thrilling postseason. As time has gone on, the number of teams has increased, leading to more opportunities for teams to qualify and compete for a championship. It’s safe to say that Wild Card games are here to stay and will continue to provide us with unforgettable moments for years to come.