The 1990 NFL season was the 71st regular season of the National Football League. To increase revenue, the league changed the regular season so that all NFL teams would play their 16-game schedule over a 17-week period. Furthermore, the playoff format was expanded from 10 teams to 12 teams by adding another wild card from each conference, thus adding two more contests to the postseason schedule; this number remains in use now. During four out of the five previous seasons, at least one team with a 10-6 record missed the playoffs, including the 11-5 Denver Broncos in 1985; meanwhile, the 10-6 San Francisco 49ers won Super Bowl XXIII, leading for calls to expand the playoff format to ensure that 10-6 teams could compete for a Super Bowl win. Ironically, the first ever sixth-seeded playoff team would not have a 10-6 record, but instead, the New Orleans Saints, with a paltry 8-8 record, took the new playoff spot.
This was also the first full season for Paul Tagliabue as the Commissioner, after taking over from Pete Rozelle midway through the previous season.
ABC was given the rights to televise the two additional playoff games. Meanwhile, Turner's TNT network started to broadcast Sunday night games for the first half of the season.
On October 8, the league announced that the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Award would be named the Pete Rozelle Trophy. The season ended with Super Bowl XXV when the New York Giants defeated the Buffalo Bills 20-19 at Tampa Stadium. This would be the first Super Bowl loss for Buffalo. They would lose the next three Super Bowls as well.
Late in the season, with the Gulf War looming closer, the NFL announced that starting in Week 16 (and continuing until Super Bowl XXV), the league would add American flag decals to the back of the helmet. The flag would return on a permanent basis in 2001 following the September 11 attacks.
Major rule changes
- The rule for unnecessary roughness penalties is clarified so that any player who butts, spears, or rams an opponent is ejected.
- The penalty for an illegal forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage is enforced from the spot where any part of the passer's body is beyond the line when the ball is released.
- The following changes are made to try to speed up the game:
- the time interval on the Play Clock (the time limit the offensive team has to snap the ball between plays) after time outs and other administrative stoppages has been reduced from 30 seconds to 25 seconds (the time interval between plays remains the same at 45 seconds);
- whenever a player goes out of bounds, other than in the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half or overtime, the game clock immediately starts when the ball is spotted for the next play and the Referee signals it is ready for play; and
- other than in the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half or overtime the game clock also starts following all declined penalties.
- This was the first season in which NFL teams officially started to have a bye week.
Final regular season standings
W = Wins, L = Losses, PCT = Winning Percentage, PF= Points For, PA = Points Against
Clinched playoff seeds are marked in parentheses and shaded in green. No ties occurred this season.
- Cincinnati finished ahead of Houston and Pittsburgh in the AFC Central based on best head-to-head record (3-1 to Oilers' 2-2 to Steelers' 1-3).
- Houston was the third AFC Wild Card based on better conference record (8-4) than Seattle (7-5) and Pittsburgh (6-6).
- Philadelphia finished ahead of Washington in the NFC East based on better division record (5-3 to Redskins' 4-4).
- Tampa Bay was second in NFC Central based on best head-to-head record (5-1) against Detroit (2-4), Green Bay (3-3), and Minnesota (2-4).
- Detroit finished third in the NFC Central based on best net division points (minus 8) against Green Bay (minus 40).
- Green Bay finished ahead of Minnesota in the NFC Central based on better conference record (5-7 to Vikings' 4-8).
- The L.A. Rams finished ahead of Atlanta in the NFC West based on net points in division (plus 1 to Falcons' minus 31).
||Buffalo Bills (428)
|Total yards gained
||Houston Oilers (6,222)
||Philadelphia Eagles (2,556)
||Houston Oilers (4,805)
|Fewest points allowed
||New York Giants (211)
|Fewest total yards allowed
||Pittsburgh Steelers (4,115)
|Fewest rushing yards allowed
||Philadelphia Eagles (1,169)
|Fewest passing yards allowed
||Pittsburgh Steelers (2,500)
|Most Valuable Player
||Joe Montana, Quarterback, San Francisco
|Coach of the Year
||Jimmy Johnson, Dallas
|Offensive Player of the Year
||Warren Moon, Quarterback, Houston Oilers
|Defensive Player of the Year
||Bruce Smith, Defensive End, Buffalo
|Offensive Rookie of the Year
||Emmitt Smith, Running Back, Dallas
|Defensive Rookie of the Year
||Mark Carrier, Safety, Chicago