The American Football Conference (AFC) is one of the two conferences of the National Football League (NFL), the highest professional level of American football in the United States. This conference and its counterpart the National Football Conference (NFC), currently contain 16 teams organized into 4 divisions. Both conferences were created as part of the 1970 merger with the rival American Football League (AFL), with all ten of the former AFL teams and three NFL teams forming the AFC, and the remaining thirteen NFL clubs forming the NFC. A series of league expansions and division realignments have occurred since the merger, thus making the current total of 16 clubs in each conference. The current AFC champions are the New England Patriots, who defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2018 AFC Championship Game for their 11th conference championship.
Currently, the thirteen opponents each team faces over the 16-game regular season schedule are set using a pre-determined formula:
Each AFC team plays the other teams in their respective division twice (home and away) during the regular season, in addition to 10 other games assigned to their schedule by the NFL. Two of these games are assigned on the basis of a particular team's final divisional standing from the previous season. The remaining 8 games are split between the roster of two other NFL divisions. This assignment shifts each year and will follow a standard cycle. Using the 2012 regular season schedule as an example, each team in the AFC West plays against every team in the AFC North and NFC South. In this way, non-divisional competition will be mostly among common opponents – the exception being the two games assigned based on the team's prior-season divisional standing.
At the end of each season, the four division winners and two wild cards (non-division winners with best regular season record) in the AFC qualify for the playoffs. The AFC playoffs culminate in the AFC Championship Game with the winner receiving the Lamar Hunt Trophy. The AFC Champion then plays the NFC Champion in the Super Bowl.
Both the AFC and the NFC were created after the NFL merged with the American Football League (AFL) in 1970. The AFL began play in 1960 with eight teams, and added two more expansion clubs (the Miami Dolphins in 1966 and the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968) before the merger. In order to equalize the number of teams in each conference, three NFL teams that predated the AFL's launch (the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, and the then-Baltimore Colts) joined the ten former AFL teams to form the AFC. The two AFL divisions AFL East and AFL West were more or less intact, while the NFL's Century Division, in which the Browns and the Steelers had played since 1967, was moved from the NFL to become the new AFC Central. Upon the completion of the merger of the AFL and NFL in 1970, the newly-minted American Football Conference had already agreed upon their divisional setup along mostly geographical lines for the 1970 season; the National Football Conference, however, could not agree upon their setup, and one was chosen from a fishbowl on January 16, 1970.
Since the merger, five expansion teams have joined the AFC and two have left, thus making the current total 16. When the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the league in 1976, they were temporarily placed in the NFC and AFC respectively. This arrangement lasted for one season only before the two teams switched conferences. The Seahawks eventually returned to the NFC as a result of the 2002 realignment. The expansion Jacksonville Jaguars joined the AFC in 1995. There have been five teams that have relocated at least once. In 1984, the Baltimore Colts relocated to Indianapolis. In 1995, the Cleveland Browns had attempted to move to Baltimore; the resulting dispute between Cleveland and the team led to Modell establishing the Baltimore Ravens with the players and personnel from the Browns, while the Browns were placed in suspended operations before they were reinstated by the NFL. The Ravens were treated as an expansion team.
The NFL would again expand in 2002, adding the Houston Texans to the AFC. With the exception of the aforementioned relocations since that time, the divisional setup has remained static ever since.
Between 1995 and 2018, the AFC has sent less than half of the 16 AFC teams to the Super Bowl with only 7 of the 16 individual teams making it. New England Patriots (10 times), Denver Broncos (4 times), Pittsburgh Steelers (4 times), Baltimore Ravens (2 times), Indianapolis Colts (2 times), Oakland Raiders (1 time), and Tennessee Titans (1 time). By contrast, the NFC has sent 13 of the 16 NFC teams during that same time frame with only the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, and Washington Redskins missing out on an appearance in the Super Bowl. 16 of the last 18 AFC champions have started one of just three quarterbacks - Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger - in the Super Bowl. The AFC has started 5 quarterbacks in the last 18 Super Bowls, while the NFC has started 14.
The merged league created a new logo for the AFC that took elements of the old AFL logo, specifically the "A" and the six stars surrounding it. The AFC logo basically remained unchanged from 1970 to 2009. The 2010 NFL season introduced an updated AFC logo, with the most notable revision being the removal of two stars (leaving four representing the four divisions of the AFC), and moving the stars inside the letter, similar to the NFC logo.
NBC aired the AFC's Sunday afternoon and playoffs games through the 1997 season. CBS took over the broadcasting rights to AFC's games in 1998. Since 2014, select games are cross-flexed from CBS to Fox. Since 1990, select AFC playoffs games air on other networks.