The league expanded its playoff system from a 10-team to a 12-team tournament. With these changes, three wild card teams (those non-division champions with the conference's best won-lost-tied percentages) qualified, up from two the year before.
The format consisted of the following:
The three division champions from each conference are seeded 1 through 3 based on their regular season won-lost-tied record.
Three wild card qualifiers are seeded 4, 5 and 6 within the conference.
The 3 and 6 seeds played each other in one game and the 4 and 5 in a second game, both making up what was dubbed the "Wild Card Round". The 1 and the 2 seeds from each conference do not participate in this round, earning an automatic berth in the following week's "Divisional Playoff" games, where they face the Wild Card survivors. The 1 seeded team plays against the lowest remaining seed while the 2 seed plays the other remaining team. In a given game, whoever has the higher seed gets the home field advantage. In addition, a rule stating that teams from the same division could not play against each other in the divisional round was abolished .
These changes forced the division winner with the worst record in each conference to play during the first round, eliminating an advantage for the top-seeded wild card where the top wild card received a home game. However, it guaranteed that division winner a home game, unlike in the previous format where the highest seeded wild-card team earned a playoff game while the lowest-seeded division winner was forced to play at the #2 seed in the Divisional Playoffs (or at the #1 seed if the wild-card game winner was in that team's division) despite earning a bye.
This system was later modified before the 2002-2003 playoffs after the league realigned the teams into eight divisions (four per conference).
WAS - Monk 16 pass from Rypien (Lohmiller kick) WAS 7-6
WAS - field goal Lohmiller 20 WAS 10-6
WAS - field goal Lohmiller 19 WAS 13-6
WAS - Clark 3 pass from Rypien (Lohmiller kick) WAS 20-6
The Redskins overcame losing two turnovers and a 6-0 deficit to score 20 unanswered points. The Eagles had a chance to capitalize early with Washington's mistakes, but could only score two field goals from kicker Roger Ruzek. And they also had a defense fumble return touchdown overturned by instant replay. However, the Redskins dominated from that point on. Washington quarterback Mark Rypien threw two touchdown passes: a 16-yarder to wide receiver Art Monk and a 3-yard completion to Gary Clark. Redskins kicker Chip Lohmiller also made two field goals.
MIA - Paige 1 pass from Marino (Stoyanovich kick) KC 16-10
MIA - Clayton 12 pass from Marino (Stoyanovich kick) MIA 17-16
With 2:28 left in the game, the Dolphins capped an 85-yard drive with quarterback Dan Marino's winning 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mark Clayton. However, the Chiefs dominated most of the game, and took an early first quarter lead with kicker Nick Lowery's 27-yard field goal. In the second quarter, kicker Pete Stoyanovich made an NFL playoff record 58-yard field goal to tie the game. But Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Stephone Paige (who finished the game with 8 catches for 142 yards), and Lowery added two more field goals to give the Chiefs a 16-3 lead going into the fourth quarter. In the final period, Marino led the Dolphins to the comeback by throwing two touchdown passes: a 1-yarder to running back Tony Paige and Clayton's winning score. The Chiefs had a chance to win the game on Lowery's 52-yard field goal attempt with 49 seconds left, but his kick was just short.
Marino finished the game with 19 of 30 completions for 221 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bengals crushed the Oilers by jumping 34-0 lead in the third quarter and holding the ball for 39:45. Running back Ickey Woods recorded a 1-yard rushing touchdown, while running back Eric Ball scored on 3-yard one. Kicker Jim Breech made two field goals: a 27-yarder and a 30-yarder. Quarterback Boomer Esiason completed 14 of 20 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns: a 2-yarder to running back Harold Green and a 9-yarder to tight end Eric Kattus. Esiason also rushed for 57 yards and another touchdown on a 10-yard run. Houston wide receiver Ernest Givins caught two touchdown passes from backup quarterback Cody Carlson to prevent a shutout.
Cincinnati's most lopsided playoff win in franchise history was the result of a team effort. The Bengals racked up 187 yards on the ground even though no player rushed for more than 57 yards, and added another 162 yards through the air, though no one caught more than 2 passes. Overall, the Bengals gained 349 yards while holding Houston to 227, with just 69 rushing yards. Ironically, Houston had helped get Cincinnati into the playoffs by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in their final game of the season, causing the Bengals to win the AFC Central based on tiebreaker rules.
As of 2012, this has been Cincinnati's last playoff win to date.
CHI - Thornton 18 pass from Tomczak (Butler kick) CHI 10-0
NO - field goal Andersen 47 CHI 10-3
CHI - field goal Butler 22 CHI 13-3
NO - field goal Andersen 38 CHI 13-6
CHI - field goal Butler 21 CHI 16-6
The Bears defense held the Saints to 65 rushing yards, 6 first downs, and two field goals. Chicago also recorded 365 yards of total offense. Bears running back Neal Anderson compiled 166 rushing yards, 42 receiving yards, and threw a 22-yard halfback option pass. Chicago kicker Kevin Butler made 3 field goals, and quarterback Mike Tomczak completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end James Thornton. New Orleans' only scores were two field goals by kicker Morten Andersen.
BUF - Reed 40 pass from Kelly (Norwood kick) BUF 7-0
MIA - field goal Stoyanovich 49 BUF 7-3
BUF - field goal Norwood 40 BUF 10-3
BUF - field goal Norwood 22 BUF 13-3
BUF - Thomas 5 run (Norwood kick) BUF 20-3
MIA - Duper 64 pass from Marino (Stoyanovich kick) BUF 20-10
BUF - Lofton 13 pass from Kelly (Norwood kick) BUF 27-10
MIA - Marino 2 run (Stoyanovich kick) BUF 27-17
MIA - field goal Stoyanovich 22 BUF 27-20
BUF - field goal Norwood 28 BUF 30-20
MIA - Foster 2 pass from Marino (Stoyanovich kick) BUF 30-27
BUF - Thomas 5 run (Norwood kick) BUF 37-27
BUF - Reed 26 pass from Kelly (Norwood kick) BUF 44-27
MIA - Martin 8 pass from Marino (Stoyanovich kick) BUF 44-34
In a shootout, the Bills jumped to a 13-3 lead in the first quarter, and kept pace with the Dolphins as the two teams matched each other score for score for the rest of the game. The Bills scored first with wide receiver Andre Reed's 40-yard touchdown reception. Then after Buffalo jumped to a 20-3 lead in the second quarter with running back Thurman Thomas' 5-yard touchdown, Miami quarterback Dan Marino cut the Bills' lead to 20-10 with a 64-yard touchdown completion to wide receiver Mark Duper. Before halftime, Bills quarterback Jim Kelly threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver James Lofton, and Marino scored on a 2-yard touchdown run. The teams exchanged field goals again the in third period. During the final quarter, Roy Foster, an offensive lineman who played in an eligible receiver position, caught a 2-yard touchdown pass to cut the Dolphins deficit to 30-27. But the Bills countered with Thomas' 5-yard touchdown run. Miami then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Kelly capitalized with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Reed to clinch the game. Marino's 8-yard touchdown to wide receiver Tony Martin closed out the scoring.
Kelly, who returned to start for the Bills after missing the last 2 games of the season with a knee injury, passed for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns, while also rushing for 37 yards. Reed was also a big factor, recording 123 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown catches. Lofton caught 7 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. Thomas led the Bills ground attack with 32 carries for 117 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns, while also catching 3 passes for 38 yards. Marino threw for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was intercepted twice. Duper caught 3 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. Running back Sammie Smith rushed for 99 yards and caught a 9 yard reception.
NFC: San Francisco 49ers 28, Washington Redskins 10Edit
WAS - Monk 31 pass from Rypien (Lohmiller kick) WAS 7-0
SF - Rathman 1 run (Cofer kick) Tie 7-7
WAS - field goal Lohmiller 44 WAS 10-7
SF - Rice 10 pass from Montana (Cofer kick) SF 14-10
SF - Sherrard 8 pass from Montana (Cofer kick) SF 21-10
SF - Carter 61 interception return (Cofer kick) SF 28-10
Quarterback Joe Montana passed for 200 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half to lead the 49ers to a 21-10 score by halftime. Redskins receiver Art Monk had a superb performance, recording 10 receptions for 163 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown catch from Mark Rypien to give his team a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. San Francisco tied the game with running back Tom Rathman's 1-yard rushing touchdown, but Washington took the lead again with kicker Chip Lohmiller's 44-yard field goal. In the second quarter, Montana then took control of the game by throwing two touchdowns: a 10-yarder to wide receiver Jerry Rice and an 8-yarder to wide receiver Mike Sherrard. San Francisco dominated Washington's offense for the rest of the game, intercepting Rypien 3 times with linebacker Michael Carter returning one of them 61-yards for a touchdown
The Giants defense dominated the game by allowing only 27 rushing yards and 3 points. New York quarterback Jeff Hostetler, playing because starter Phil Simms suffered a season-ending injury, completed 10 out of 17 passes for 122 yards. He also threw 2 touchdown passes: a 21-yard completion to wide receiver Stephen Baker and a 3-yarder to tight end Howard Cross. Hostetler also ran for 43 yards, including a 3-yard rushing touchdown. Giants kicker Matt Bahr made a 46-yard field goal and running back Maurice Carthon scored a 1-yard touchdown.
AFC: Los Angeles Raiders 20, Cincinnati Bengals 10Edit
RAI - Fernandez 13 pass from Schroeder (Jaeger kick) RAI 7-3
RAI - field goal Jaeger 49 RAI 10-3
CIN - Jennings 8 pass from Esiason (Breech kick) Tie 10-10
RAI - Horton 41 pass from Schroeder (Jaeger kick) RAI 17-10
RAI - field goal Jaeger 25 RAI 20-10
The Raiders recorded 235 rushing yards (with 140 of them coming from running back Marcus Allen), while holding the Bengals to just 182 total yards and sacking Boomer Esiason four times (Three by lineman Greg Townsend), but still had to score 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to clinch the victory. The Bengals scored first during the second period with kicker Jim Breech's 27-yard field goal. But Los Angeles quarterback Jay Schroeder threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mervyn Fernandez to give the Raiders a 7-3 lead before halftime. Los Angeles kicker Jeff Jaeger made a 49-field goal in the third quarter, but Cincinnati tied the game early in the fourth period with running back Stanford Jennings' 8-yard touchdown reception from Esiason. However, a 41-yard touchdown pass from Schroeder to tight end Ethan Horton and Jaeger's 25-yard field goal clinched the victory.
This was Raiders running back Bo Jackson's final NFL game, having injured his left hip during the third quarter while being tackled from behind by Bengals linebacker Kevin Walker. The injury was later revealed to have caused a degenerative bone condition in Jackson's hip called, avascular necrosis. Before being knocked out of the game, he rushed 6 times for 77 yards. Some Bengals fans theorize that this injury to one of the greatest athletes ever placed a curse on the Bengals franchise (sometimes called "the curse of Bo Jackson"), and that this curse is partially responsible for the Bengals' notorious failure to field a competitive football team for most of the next decade and half.
This game is also notable for being Marcus Allen's last 100-plus yard rushing performance with the Raiders, as well as the last postseason game the Bengals would play in until the 2005 season. To this day the Bengals have not won another playoff game. Their winless playoff streak is the longest among all 32 NFL teams.
BUF - Lofton 8 pass from Kelly (Norwood kick) BUF 41-3
BUF - K. Davis 1 run (Norwood kick) BUF 48-3
BUF - field goal Norwood 39 BUF 51-3
Raiders head coach Art Shell became the first African-American coach to take his team to a conference championship game, but the results were not in his favor.
The Bills shredded the Raiders, limiting quarterback Jay Schroeder to 13 of 31 completions for 150 yards and intercepting him 5 times, while also holding running back Marcus Allen to just 26 yards on 10 carries. On offense, the Bills amassed 502 total yards, including 202 yards on the ground. Running back Thurman Thomas rushed for 138 and a touchdown while also catching 5 passes for 61 yards, while running back Kenneth Davis tied an AFC playoff record with 3 rushing touchdowns. Buffalo also set an NFL playoff record by scoring 41 points in the first half. Bills quarterback Jim Kelly threw for 300 yards and two touchdown passes to wide receiver James Lofton, who finished the game with 5 receptions for 113 yards. Thomas recorded a 12-yard touchdown run, while Davis scored from 1 yard, 3 yards, and 1 yard out. Linebacker Darryl Talley returned one of his two interceptions 27 yards for a touchdown.
On Buffalo's opening drive, Kelly completed six consecutive passes, the last one a 13-yard touchdown throw to Lofton after he recovered a fumbled snap in shotgun formation. The Raiders responded with a 41-yard field goal from Jeff Jaeger, but Buffalo stormed back with another touchdown just four plays after the ensuing kickoff, set up by Kelly's 41-yard completion to Lofton. After a punt, Los Angeles defensive back Gary Lewis intercepted a pass from Kelly. But two plays later, Talley intercepted a pass from Schroeder and returned it for a touchdown. The Raiders were forced to punt on their next possession, and Buffalo stormed down the field again, scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run by Davis on fourth down and goal. An interception by Nate Odomes set up Davis' second touchdown less than a minute later, and before the half ended, Lofton caught his second touchdown pass to give the Bills a 41-3 first half lead.
Buffalo increased their lead to 48-3 with Davis' third touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Later on, Scott Norwood closed out the scoring with a 39-yard field goal.
Buffalo recorded a total of six interceptions, the third highest total ever in a single NFL game. Defensive back Mark Kelso recorded his fourth career postseason interception in the game, a Bills' record.
NFC Championship: New York Giants 15, San Francisco 49ers 13Edit
SF - Taylor 61 yard pass from Montana (Cofer kick) SF 13-6
NYG - field goal Bahr 46 SF 13-9
NYG - field goal Bahr 38 SF 13-12
NYG - field goal Bahr 42 NYG 15-13
In a mostly defensive battle, 49ers running back Roger Craig's fumble with 2:36 left in the game led to Giants kicker Matt Bahr's 42-yard game-winning field goal as time ran out. Bahr was New York's only scorer, as he made 5 out of 6 field goals. Although the Giants outrushed the 49ers, 152 yards to 49, the game was tied 6–6 at halftime. During the first half, Dave Meggett on a halfback option rolled out and delivered a strike to fullback Maurice Carthon. Carthon dropped the ball in the back of the end zone. It was the closest the Giants would get to scoring a touchdown. In the third quarter, a 61-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Montana to wide receiver John Taylor gave San Francisco the lead, 13-6. Bahr then made a 46-yard field goal that cut the lead, 13-9.
In the fourth quarter, Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler was hit at the knees by 49ers defensive tackle Jim Burt. Hostetler was injured on the play, but managed to walk off the field under his own power. Giants linebacker Carl Banks later recalled that the defense was infuriated by the play and looked to strike back. "It was unspoken...that if you hurt one of our guys, we knew who to go after," Banks said.
On the 49ers' next drive, Montana called a pass play on third down. With the New York defense covering all of his receivers, Montana was forced to move outside the pocket to make a play. Although Lawrence Taylor took a swipe at Montana and missed, Leonard Marshall came from behind Montana and hit him hard in the back, causing a fumble. Montana, whose back was already injured, was slow to get up and was taken out of the game with a severe concussion and a broken finger. San Francisco managed to retain possession, however, as lineman Steve Wallace fell on the ball after New York cornerback Mark Collins could not hold onto it.
Hostetler returned for the next drive but could not manage a first down. A fake punt, however, caught the 49ers off guard and linebacker Gary Reasons ran for thirty yards. Hostetler then drove New York to the opposing 21-yard line, but could get no further and nearly threw an interception on a third down pass toward the end zone. Bahr kicked his fourth field goal of the game with 5:47 left to bring the score to 13-12.
Steve Young came in to replace Montana on the next drive, and the 49ers tried to run as much time as they could off the clock. On the second play off the drive Brent Jones got behind the Giants defense and Young hit him for a twenty-five yard gain, and two plays later Craig picked up a first down with a six yard gain. On the very next play, Young handed the ball off to Craig again, but Erik Howard stopped him behind the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble that fell right into Taylor's arms. This was the only turnover of the game.
With 2:36 left and with all three timeouts, Hostetler and the Giants began driving again. He hit Mark Bavaro for nineteen yards on the first play and later hit Stephen Baker for thirteen more on a second down to set up a short run by Ottis Anderson for two yards and a first down. New York called two running plays to get the ball to the middle of the field, and with four seconds left Bahr was called on to try to win the game. His kick went through the uprights as time ran out and the Giants won the game.