A new playoff format was unveiled as a result of the realignment that occurred prior to the 1970 merger of the National Football League and American Football League.
The merged league consisted of two conferences each containing three divisions. The three division winners and the non-division-winning team with the best won-loss percentage qualified for the playoffs. A predetermined post-season schedule was produced that rotated the home teams based on divisions, regardless of winning percentage. While that format was short-lived – the league dropped it in 1975 – the addition of a wild card team was permanent.
On March 29, 1978, the NFL adopted a new 16-game schedule preceded by a four-game preseason. An additional wild card team in each conference was added to the playoffs with the two wild cards squaring off during the first weekend of the post-season.
In 1990, two more wild card teams were added to the mix. Primary reasons cited for the dramatic change in the playoff format included an increase in television revenue and to streamline a complex tiebreaking system. With a total of three wild cards included in both the AFC and NFC, twelve of the league's 28 teams qualified for the playoffs.
Then, in 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams, the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions. A total of seven teams changed divisions with the Seattle Seahawks switching from the AFC to the NFC, where they first played in 1976.
The playoff format now includes four division winners and two wild-card teams from each conference. The Wild Card games that kick off the post-season play feature two division winners hosting wild-card teams.
Since the Wild Card System began in 1970, only ten wild card teams have advanced all the way to the Super Bowl. Of those, six won the Super Bowl. Only four of those wild card teams -- New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, and Green Bay Packers -- won three games on the road to make it to the Super Bowl.
In 1969, the AFL implemented a playoff format that had the top two teams in each division qualifying for the post-season. The Kansas City Chiefs, who did not win the AFL Western Division title, accomplished the tough feat of advancing through the AFL playoffs before defeating the NFL champion Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
1975 Dallas Cowboys (10-4-0, 2nd Place, NFC Eastern Division)
Divisional Playoff – at Minnesota Vikings – (W) – 17-14
NFC Championship – at Los Angeles Rams – (W) – 37-7
Super Bowl X – vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – (L) – 21-17
1980 Oakland Raiders ( 11-5-0, 2nd Place, AFC Western Division)
Wild Card Playoff – vs. Houston Oilers – (W) – 27-7
Divisional Playoff – at Cleveland Browns – (W) – 14-12
AFC Championship – at San Diego Chargers – (W) – 34-27
Super Bowl XV – vs. Philadelphia Eagles – (W) – 27-10
1985 New England Patriots (11-5-0, 3rd Place, AFC Eastern Division)
Wild Card Playoff – at New York Jets – (W) – 26-14
Divisional Playoff – at Los Angeles Raiders – (W) – 27-20
AFC Championship – at Miami Dolphins – (W) – 31-14
Super Bowl XX – vs. Chicago Bears – (L) – 46-10
1992 Buffalo Bills (11-5-0, 2nd Place, AFC Eastern Division)
Wild Card Playoff – vs. Houston Oilers – (W) – 41-38 (OT)
Divisional Playoff – at Pittsburgh Steelers – (W) – 24-3
AFC Championship – at Miami Dolphins – (W) – 29-10
Super Bowl XXVII – vs. Dallas Cowboys – (L) – 52-17
1997 Denver Broncos (12-4-0, 2nd Place, AFC Western Division)
Wild Card Playoff – vs. Jacksonville Jaguars – (W) – 42-17
Divisional Playoff – at Kansas City Chiefs – (W) – 14-10
AFC Championship – at Pittsburgh Steelers – (W) – 24-21
Super Bowl XXXII – vs. Green Bay Packers – (W) – 31-24
1999 Tennessee Titans (13-3-0, 2nd Place, AFC Central Division)
Wild Card Playoff – vs. Buffalo Bills – (W) – 22-16
Divisional Playoff – at Indianapolis Colts – (W) – 19-16
AFC Championship – at Jacksonville Jaguars – (W) – 33-14
Super Bowl XXXIV – vs. St. Louis Rams – (L) – 23-16
2000 Baltimore Ravens (12-4-0, 2nd Place, AFC Central Division)
Wild Card Playoff – vs. Denver Broncos – (W) – 21-3
Divisional Playoff – at Tennessee Titans – (W) – 24-10
AFC Championship – at Oakland Raiders – (W) – 16-3
Super Bowl XXXV – vs. New York Giants – (W) – 34-7
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5-0, 2nd Place, AFC North Division)
Wild Card Playoff – at Cincinnati Bengals – (W) 31-17
Divisional Playoff – at Indianapolis Colts – (W) 21-18
AFC Championship – at Denver Broncos – (W) 34-17
Super Bowl XL – vs. Seattle Seahawks – (W) 21-10
2007 New York Giants (10-6-0, 2nd Place, NFC East Division)
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Wild Card Playoff – at Tampa Bay Buccaneers – (W) 24-14
Divisional Playoff – at Dallas Cowboys – (W) 21-17
NFC Championship – at Green Bay Packers – (W) 23-20 (OT)
Super Bowl XLII – vs. New England Patriots – (W) 17-14
2010 Green Bay Packers (10-6-0, 2nd Place, NFC North Division)
Wild Card Playoff – at Philadelphia Eagles – (W) 21-16
Divisional Playoff – at Atlanta Falcons – (W) 48-21
NFC Championship – at Chicago Bears – (W) 21-14
Super Bowl XLV – vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – (W) 31-25