With the NFL's first 18 weeks in the books, eight teams will battle it out this weekend for the right to play in the NFL's championship round. And while this weekend's slate of games is known as the "divisional round," the Saints-Buccaneers showdown is the only game between divisional foes. There are no games between teams that won their respective division.
Why is the NFL's second round called the divisional round? To find the answer, you have to go back to 1941, when the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers finished in a tie for the NFL's Western Division title. Back then, the Western and Eastern division champions played each other in the NFC Championship Game. To determine which team would face the Eastern Division champion Giants in the title game, the Bears and Packers played in a "divisional round" playoff game. The Bears, led by the duo of George McAfee (14 carries, 119 yards) and Norm Standlee (15 carries, 79 yards, two touchdowns), defeated the Packers, 33-14. Chicago then went on to defeat the Giants in the NFL title game, 37-9.
A divisional round tiebreaker was used eight more times between 1943 and 1965. In 1950, both the American and National conferences needed to play divisional round playoff games to determine their champions. The Cleveland Browns, playing in their first NFL season, defeated the Giants 8-3 to capture the American Conference title. Cleveland then defeated the Los Angeles Rams (who had edged the Bears 24-14 in the Western Conference tiebreaker) to capture its first NFL title.
The divisional round was implemented on a permanent basis in 1967, after the NFL decided to split into four divisions. Under this format, the four division champions played one another for the right to play for the NFL title. The Packers won the first NFC title under this format while becoming the last team to win three consecutive league titles. The divisional round remained the same after the NFL and AFL merged before the start of the 1970 season.
In 1978, the NFL expanded its postseason to include two non-division winners from each conference, thus creating the "wild-card" round. And despite the fact that the second round would no longer be exclusively played between division champions, the league continued to call it the "divisional round."
The NFL has since expanded its postseason twice (the league went from 10 to 12 playoff teams in 1990 before expanding the field to 14 times this postseason), and the divisional round has kept its name. It also continues to be one of the best weekends of the NFL season. Here's a quick rundown of some of the best divisional round playoff games since the AFL-NFL merger.
- 1971: On Christmas Day, the Dolphins outlast the Chiefs in the longest NFL game ever played.
- 1972: Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" gives the Steelers their first-ever playoff victory.
- 1974: Clarence Davis' touchdown catch amidst a "Sea of Hands" ends the Dolphins' two-year title defense.
- 1975: Roger Staubach completes the first-ever "Hail Mary" pass to Drew Pearson, as the Cowboys upset the Vikings en route to an NFC title.
- 1977: The "Ghost to the Post" propelled the Raiders to a double-overtime win over the Colts.
- 1981: Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow and the Chargers hold off the Dolphins in the "Epic in Miami."
- 1987: Anthony Carter's 227 receiving yards lead the Vikings to a monumental upset win over the 49ers.
- 1988: Bears best Eagles in hallowed "Fog Bowl."
- 1996: In just their second year of existence, the Jaguars stun the heavily-favored Broncos, 30-27.
- 2001: The controversial "Tuck Rule" helped the Patriots beat the Raiders while jump-starting New England's dynasty.
- 2012: Joe Flacco's 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones helped Baltimore upset Denver in the "Mile High Miracle."
- 2014: Cowboys fans still haven't gotten over Dez Bryant's overturned catch in their team's playoff loss to the Packers.
- 2015: After Aaron Rodgers' Hail Mary forced overtime, Larry Fitzgerald's touchdown gives the Cardinals a win over Green Bay.
- 2017: On the last play of the game, Stefon Diggs' improbable 61-yard touchdown lifted the Vikings a stunning 29-24 win over the Saints.
- 2019: Down 24-0 to the Texans, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs score 51 of the game's final 58 points. The game was the first of three straight games that saw the Chiefs win after overcoming a double-digit deficit.
While its name may not still apply, the divisional round is an integral part of the NFL's rich postseason history. Another chapter is waiting to be written this weekend.