The 1986 NFL season was the 67th regular season of the National Football League. Defending Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears shared the league’s best record with the Giants at 14–2, with the Giants claiming the spot in the NFC by tiebreakers. In the AFC, the Cleveland Browns earned home-field advantage with a record of 12–4, and they hosted the New York Jets in round one of the AFC playoffs. The Jets had started the season at 10–1 before losing their final five contests. The game went to double OT, with the Browns finally prevailing 23–20. The following Sunday, John Elway and the Denver Broncos defeated the Browns by an identical score in a game known for The Drive, where Elway drove his team 98 yards to send the game to overtime to win. The Giants would defeat their rival Washington Redskins in the NFC title game, blanking them 17–0 to advance to their first Super Bowl. The season ended with Super Bowl XXI when the New York Giants defeated the Denver Broncos 39–20 at the Rose Bowl to win their first league title in 30 years.
- November 8, 1986: Steve Tasker was claimed off waivers by the Buffalo Bills.
The 1986 NFL Draft was held from April 29 to 30, 1986 at New York City's Marriott Marquis. With the first pick, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected runningback Bo Jackson from Auburn University.
Dick Hantak was promoted to referee. Fred Silva was then assigned as a swing official instead of his own crew after suffering a heart attack in the offseason. Chuck Heberling was scheduled to be an instant replay official, but was asked to remain on the field following Silva's heart attack. Herberling earned assignment to the AFC championship.
Major rule changes
- Players are prohibited from wearing apparel, equipment, or other items that carry commercial names, names of organizations, or any type of personal message unless they get specific permission from the league.
- If the offensive team commits a dead ball foul during the last two minutes of a half, the clock will start at the snap.
- If an offensive player fumbles the ball and it goes forward and out of bounds, the ball is returned to that team at the spot of the fumble.
- If an offensive player fumbles the ball in the field of play and it goes out of bounds in the opponent's end zone, the ball is given to the defensive team at the spot of the fumble (this rule would be changed in 1991 to result in a touchback).
- A limited system of instant replay was adopted to aid officiating. A replay official in a booth would decide what plays to review and make the final ruling, regardless of the current score or the amount of time left in the game. The replay official communicated with the game officials via radio transmitters. However, there was no time limit on how long the replay official could review a play and this led to long game delays (this was a major reason why the system was eventually repealed in 1992 and not brought back until a more comprehensive replay system with time limits were established in 1999).
A series of National Football League pre-season exhibition games that were held at sites outside the United States, the only American Bowl game in 1986 was held at London’s Wembley Stadium.
Highlights of the 1986 season included:
- Thanksgiving: Two games were played on Thursday, November 27, featuring Green Bay at Detroit and Seattle at Dallas, with Green Bay and Seattle winning.
- Denver was second AFC playoff seed ahead of New England based on head-to-head victory (1–0).
- N.Y. Jets were the first AFC Wild Card based on better conference record (8–4) than Kansas City (9–5), Seattle (7–5), and Cincinnati (7–5).
- Kansas City was the second AFC Wild Card based on better conference record (9–5) than Seattle (7–5) and Cincinnati (7–5).
- N.Y. Giants were the top NFC playoff seed based on better conference record than Chicago (11–1 to Bears' 10–2).
The following players set all-time records during the season: