NFL Structure and League system

Matt, our Vegas-based writer offers betting tips on all American Sports each week. He has also provided this basic guide to American Football, in the form of a series. So that newcomers can get an understanding of the game, its strategy and key teams. This is part five of the basic guide to American football. Part one covers the basics of American Football. Part two details all of the positions and their roles on the field, while part three explains all of the American Football strategies and the most common tactics. Article four in the American Football Guide series covered how to bet on American Football. Part five covers the NFL structure, how their league system works, how to get to the Super Bowl and how it all differs from the European League system.

American Football and the NFL Structure

American sports differ significantly from the global giant game of football. They are as different as the balls they use, and the differences do not stop on the field. I will explain some of the basic structure of the National Football League, the preeminent professional league of American football. Its conferences and teams, its championship, and some player management tactics. Most football leagues around the globe work in the same manner as the English league system. We will highlight the differences between the Premier League and the NFL.

Football is one of the most strategic and exciting games on the planet and is growing. Flag football, a non-contact version of American Football, is now an Olympic sport. The Super Bowl is only behind the World Cup final in viewership and is the world’s top solo single sporting event. This information will explain how NFL teams are organized and how that plays a role in what team earns a playoff berth and who gets to play in the Super Bowl. The NFL perfectly balances regular season games, playoff berths, and game frequency to maximize excitement. While the Football League point system can build multiple games with massive impact and excitement from the first to the last of the season, the NFL, with their short seasons and league parity, achieves the same effect and has the playoffs, which is the best part of American football.

The Role of Conferences and Divisions in NFL

Two Conferences under one League. Today’s National Football League is a product of a merger between the competing National Football League and the American Football League in 1966. Both adopted the Conference surname, and the NFC and the AFC were born, making two rival sides of the NFL. These opposing conferences would meet in the inaugural Super Bowl in 1967 and remain true to that tradition. The conferences are identical in formation, rules, and compliance. They freely play each other, and every team plays every other team within a 3-year minimum. As we will discuss, there is a difference in scheduling once the regular season is over and the playoffs begin. This ensures the AFC and NFC will continuously face each other in the Super Bowl.

American Football Conference (AFC)

Team Name City Home Stadium
East Division
Buffalo Bills Orchard Park, New York Highmark Stadium
Miami Dolphins Miami Gardens, Florida Hard Rock Stadium
New England Patriots Foxborough, Massachusetts Gillette Stadium
New York Jets East Rutherford, New Jersey MetLife Stadium
North Division
Baltimore Ravens Baltimore, Maryland M&T Bank Stadium
Cincinnati Bengals Cincinnati, Ohio Paycor Stadium
Cleveland Browns Cleveland, Ohio FirstEnergy Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Acrisure Stadium
South Division
Houston Texans Houston, Texas NRG Stadium
Indianapolis Colts Indianapolis, Indiana Lucas Oil Stadium
Jacksonville Jaguars Jacksonville, Florida TIAA Bank Field
Tennessee Titans Nashville, Tennessee Nissan Stadium
West Division
Denver Broncos Denver, Colorado Empower Field at Mile High
Kansas City Chiefs Kansas City, Missouri Arrowhead Stadium
Las Vegas Raiders Paradise, Nevada Allegiant Stadium
Los Angeles Chargers Inglewood, California SoFi Stadium

National Football Conference (NFC)

Team Name City Home Stadium
East Division
Dallas Cowboys Arlington, Texas AT&T Stadium
New York Giants East Rutherford, New Jersey MetLife Stadium
Philadelphia Eagles Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Lincoln Financial Field
Washington Commanders Landover, Maryland FedExField
North Division
Chicago Bears Chicago, Illinois Soldier Field
Detroit Lions Detroit, Michigan Ford Field
Green Bay Packers Green Bay, Wisconsin Lambeau Field
Minnesota Vikings Minneapolis, Minnesota U.S. Bank Stadium
South Division
Atlanta Falcons Atlanta, Georgia Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Carolina Panthers Charlotte, North Carolina Bank of America Stadium
New Orleans Saints New Orleans, Louisiana Caesars Superdome
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tampa, Florida Raymond James Stadium
West Division
Arizona Cardinals Glendale, Arizona State Farm Stadium
Los Angeles Rams Inglewood, California SoFi Stadium
San Francisco 49ers Santa Clara, California Levi’s Stadium
Seattle Seahawks Seattle, Washington Lumen Field

Each Conference has four divisions. The NFL has grown to two conferences, each having four divisions (North, East, South, and West), with each division having four teams for 32 teams.  Divisions are a very vital sectioning. The top team of each division gets an all-important spot in the playoffs, which I will cover later. Each team plays every other division team twice a season, at home and away. Due to the importance, familiarity, geography, and good old sports mentality, division rivalries are intense, and division games are even more intense. Throw records and stats to the side. Terms like underdogs and favourites don’t matter. Division games are always a fight. Each division team plays each other twice a year, home and away. A division win, coupled with a rival division loss, has twice the impact of a non-division win, given the playoff seating format to demonstrate the importance.


The Journey to the Super Bowl: Playoffs Explained

The Super Bowl is the championship game of the National Football League. It is reached after a 17-game regular season and two conference playoff series.

What are the playoffs?

This is when the conference comes into effect. The conferences split and host rounds of single-elimination games. Soon, each conference has a champion, who faces each other in the Super Bowl for the league champion. Often, both are division champions as well—a lot of championing is going on. While the league creates many sectors, it serves to generate conference rivals in the playoffs.

The NFL uses a bracket, elimination game playoff system.  Each round the winner moves on and the loser is eliminated. From 4 to 2 to 1, as an example.

What teams make the playoffs?

Throughout the season, Wins and Losses are accrued and ranked against other teams. Games rarely go into draws, but they do affect rankings. There is no point system. Each division sends its top team automatically into the playoffs, with the top conference record receiving a bye on playing week one of the playoffs, a considerable edge. Along with the division winners, the teams with the three best overall records receive a playoff berth. These are called wild card teams and will be road teams in the first round of the playoffs, known as Wild Card Weekend, as they play the #2-#4 ranked teams.  The highest-ranked team will get to host the lowest-ranked team. Generally wild fits the description as division rivals and top teams clash. I don’t always watch 18 hours of football on a weekend, but I do on Wild Card Weekend. From now on, every team is four wins away from being a champion.

While most teams will face each other in Wild Card Weekend, the top team in the conference receives their bye week. During their bye week, they can rest injuries, prepare for next week’s game and watch other teams beat each other mercilessly.

This displays the playoff brackets from the Kansas City Chiefs 2022 championship year.  Both #1 teams making it to the playoffs demonstrates the importance of the #1 seat. Along with the bye week, they host the lowest seated team in the Divisional round and have home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

The National Football League and its teams are much more rigid than their global football counterparts. The NFL is one company that owns the league and the teams are individual franchises. Some key player management practices the NFL uses are different from global systems.

It has a hard salary cap, rigid contracts, and is a one-tier league.

Each team in the NFL is allowed to spend the same as every other team; this is a hard salary cap. The theory is to create a league that is equal in team strength. This ensures super teams don’t happen, and the league isn’t won and is continually run by the biggest spenders.  There are ways to avoid them, but it is an effective system.

Contracts in the NFL can be vicious. You constantly hear of contract disputes, holdouts, player cuts, etc. With the NFL players having the shortest game life, they have to maximize their money and wealthy team owners didn’t get rich giving money away. Players are often forced to switch teams due to salary cap situations and better offers as they should. It makes the faces of the NFL ever-changing and challenging for dynasties to form. There are no easy ways to buy out for the player to move and earn more.  At any time, a team can cut a player in a few different ways.

The NFL is a league without tiers or levels. No minor, developmental, or provincial leagues. No relegation of any kind.  Some competing and minor regional leagues are scattered across America, but none are of note or are official partners with the NFL. This is an extreme disadvantage for players as the NFL has contract leverage and career finality. If a player isn’t quite good enough for the NFL, there aren’t many options for growing into a better player. The odds of a high school American football athlete making it to the pro level are the lowest of any professional sport. Older or injured athletes learn they can be cut or dismissed from the team with nowhere to rebound.  NFL careers are also the shortest of any professional sport.

College Football and the draft are the developmental tools of the NFL. Players must wait two years after high school to be declared eligible for the NFL draft. While some teams vie for a Super Bowl run, others prepare for the NFL draft. To balance the league, the NFL offers the highest pick to the team with the worst record. There is a lottery system to finalize the order, but the worse the team, the better the chances. Many top picks have wasted a career on terrible teams.


Comparing NFL with International Football Structures

The NFL is one league with franchises operating under it. In the UK the FA is a governing body with more independent teams There is a rigidity in the NFL versus a fluid model of the English Premier League that carries over in almost every aspect.

The NFL may expand to include more teams; they will be in new markets and new teams in the existing league. The FA is a football pyramid with multiple levels, with the highest Premier League. Every year the bottom teams get relegated down a league while others get to move up; this is relegation. Without a pyramid of teams, there is no place to send the Carolina Panthers after another dismal season. They will instead draft another talented kid and try to better themselves. Americans must resort to Ted Lasso episodes to get the drama and anguish of relegation.

I like the pyramid club style, more teams, and more levels of teams. I think it’s great for smaller communities, fans, and athletes who enjoy playing and are not on the Premier level for some reason. The NFL is the only major American professional sport without some form of minor league. Although none practice relegation, most are extensions of an existing major league team.

Players and contracts are highly fluid in Europe.

High-spending super teams exist, and players can be bought or traded almost at will, from lower leagues, even leagues in other countries.  The NFL has stricter contracts and far more control of player movement. Teams can hold on to a player after his contract expires. With player salaries much higher and careers longer across the board in European Football this style may seem more beneficial to the player. I do like the player’s advantage of playing in a lesser game post-injury, or any type of developmental reason. I think the NFL could be better with a minor league, although it would operate like the current American system of franchises.

Playoffs vs a point system to establish a championship

The English Premier League, like other European leagues, works on a point system, Three points for a win and 1 point for a draw. Every team plays every team twice in EPL and the point leader is declared champion. There are 20 teams in EPL.

The NFL uses a bracket-style playoff system to narrow a field of fourteen playoff teams to one. Teams accrue records throughout the year to gain a playoff berth as well as home-field advantages and complete passes through round one of the playoffs. The NFL devised its conference/division construct to deliver a hammer-packed playoff system. NCAAF college football has a similar playoff system and supplementary bowl games that give alumni a chance to party. The Toilet Bowl game will be on my Vegas Edge article this week. That’s a pun.

I’ve shown my open-mindedness and fondness for many FA concepts, but having no playoff system or championship game is pure nonsense. Get the best teams and make them battle to the death until one remains. That is what sports are about and that is how championships are claimed!

Some weebley wobbley point system? Awarding draws and no championship match of any kind? What are you the champion of? The most draws in 2022? That’s brilliant. Now, if I’m setting up a league for my children and don’t want to spend all of my Saturday watching them try and cross midfield, that’s understandable. If I spend my hard-earned money on pro-level tickets, I want a refund if the game ends in a draw.


My point of writing is to show the excitement of American football, how a touchdown is huge. How a fourth down stop in the middle of the field can be even more huge. A game of battles and strategy. A game of fumbles, bumbles, big plays and moments of undersung heroics. It’s a beautiful and exciting game. Knowing the construct of conferences and divisions only compounds the big game feel and effect. Having the playoffs only increases the intensity on all levels. With the small 17-game regular season, winning the division or a wild card seat is paramount and also intensifies every, but more so the last third of the season. Division rivals will face ti flip fortunes and teams will go from near death to a few wins from being a Super Bowl champion.