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History of how NFL playoffs have expanded


The collective bargaining agreement that the NFL Players Association ratified includes an expansion of the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams beginning this year.

As a result, 43.8 percent of the NFL's 32 teams will now make the playoffs. That's still the second lowest percentage among America's four major sports. Major League Baseball has the fewest playoff teams at 33.3 percent (10 of 30), while the NHL is at 51.6 (16 of 31) and the NBA is at 53.3 (16 of 30).

The NFL's new playoff format will add one extra game in each conference during wild card weekend, with the second seed hosting the seventh seed. In the past, the top two seeds had a first-round bye. But now only the No. 1 seed in each conference will earn the first weekend off.

This isn't the first time the NFL playoffs have expanded, so here's a timeline of when and how the league's postseason has evolved:

There was no postseason during the NFL's first 13 seasons of existence; the team with the best regular season record was crowned the league champion. In 1932, the Bears and Portsmouth Spartans tied for first place with 6-1 records and played each other to determine the NFL champion. The Bears won 9-0 in what was the first indoor game in NFL history. The contest was moved indoors to the Chicago Stadium due to frigid conditions in Chicago.

1933-66 (2 playoff teams)
In 1933, the league split into two divisions and the NFL Championship Game was held between the two division winners. The Bears played in the first official title game after claiming the Western Division title with a 10-2-1 record. They rallied to beat the Eastern Division champion New York Giants 23-21 in the league's inaugural championship game at Wrigley Field.

If there was a tie for first place in a division, a one-game playoff was held. The Bears were involved the first time it happened. In 1941, the Bears and Packers both finished with 10-1 records and met in the NFL's first divisional playoff game at Wrigley Field. The Bears beat the Packers 33-14 and then defeated the Giants 37-9 to win the NFL championship, with both games at Wrigley Field.

This format remained in place through 1966.

1967-69 (4 playoff teams)
In 1967, the NFL realigned into four four-team divisions—the Capitol, Century, Coastal and Central. The Bears were placed in the Central along with the Lions, Packers and Vikings. The four division champions squared off in the playoffs, with the winners of those games meeting for the NFL title. The NFL champion than met the AFL champion in the Super Bowl.

1970-77 (8 playoff teams)
In 1970, the NFL merged with the AFL, increasing from 16 to 26 teams. The league was split into two conferences, with three divisions in each conference. Eight teams qualified for the playoffs—three division winners and one wild card in each conference. The Bears qualified for the playoffs once during this span, earning a wild card berth in 1977 and losing in the opening round to the eventual Super Bowl champion and top-seeded Cowboys 37-7 in Dallas.

1978-89 (10 playoff teams)
In 1978, the NFL added a second wild card in each conference. The two wild cards played each other in the newly-created wild card round, with the winner advancing onto the divisional round. In 1979, the Bears earned the second wild card and lost to the first wild card, the Eagles, 27-17, in Philadelphia.

Due to the players' strike that limited teams to just nine regular-season games in 1982, the league held a 16-team tournament with the top eight seeds in each conference advancing to the postseason. The Bears finished 12th out of 14 teams in the NFC with a 3-6 record.

1990-2019 (12 playoff teams)
In 1990, a third wild card was added in each conference, increasing the playoff field to six teams in each conference. With the top two seeds earning a first-round bye, the opening weekend of the playoffs featured the third seed hosting the sixth seed and the fourth seed hosting the fifth seed. The lowest remaining seed would then visit the top seed in the second round.

In 1994, the Bears made the playoffs as the third and final wild card, even though they finished fourth in the NFC Central with a 9-7 record. They upset the division-champion Vikings 35-18 in Minnesota before losing in the divisional round to the top-seeded and eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers 44-15 in San Francisco.

In 2001, the Bears won the NFC Central with a 13-3 record, earning the second seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye. The Bears lost in the divisional round to the third-seeded Eagles 33-19 at Soldier Field.

In 2002, the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions. The playoffs continued to consist of six teams in each conference—but with four division winners and two wild cards. The top two seeds continued to earn byes, while all four division winners were assured of hosting its first playoff game.

The Bears won NFC North championships in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2018. They earned first-round byes in 2006 as the top seed and in 2005 and 2010 as the second seed. In 2018, they finished as the third seed in the NFC.

In 2005, the Bears lost to the third-seeded Panthers 29-21 in the divisional round at Soldier Field. In 2006, the Bears beat the fourth-seeded Seahawks 27-24 in overtime in the divisional round and the second-seeded Saints 39-14 in the NFC Championship Game, both in Chicago, before losing Super Bowl XLI to the Colts 29-17 in Miami.

In 2010, the Bears defeated the fourth-seeded Seahawks 35-24 in the divisional round at Soldier Field before losing to the sixth-seeded and eventual Super Bowl champion Packers 21-14 in the NFC Championship Game in Chicago. In 2018, the Bears lost to the sixth-seeded Eagles 16-15 in the wild card round at Soldier Field.