|Duration||September 4 – December 28, 2003|
|Start date||January 3, 2004|
|AFC Champions||New England Patriots|
|NFC Champions||Carolina Panthers|
|Super Bowl XXXVIII|
|Date||February 1, 2004|
|Site||Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas|
|Champions||New England Patriots|
|Date||February 8, 2004|
Regular-season play was held from September 4, 2003, to December 28, 2003. Due to damage caused by the Cedar Fire, Qualcomm Stadium was used as an emergency shelter, and thus the Miami Dolphins–San Diego Chargers regular-season match on October 27 was instead played at Sun Devil Stadium, the home field of the Arizona Cardinals. This was the first season in NFL History where every team won at least 4 games.
The playoffs began on January 3, 2004. The NFL title was won by the New England Patriots when they defeated the Carolina Panthers, 32–29, in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas, on February 1.
This was the last season until the 2016 NFL season where neither of the previous Super Bowl participants made the playoffs.
The 2003 NFL Draft was held from April 26 to 27, 2003 at New York City's Theater at Madison Square Garden. With the first pick, the Cincinnati Bengals selected quarterback Carson Palmer from the University of Southern California.
Dick Hantak and Bob McElwee retired in the 2003 off-season. Hantak joined the league as a back judge in 1978, and was assigned Super Bowl XVII in that position. He was promoted to referee in 1986, working Super Bowl XXVII. McElwee joined the NFL in 1976 as a line judge, and became a referee in 1980. He was the referee for three Super Bowls: XXII, XXVIII, and XXXIV. Walt Anderson and Pete Morelli were promoted to referee to replace Hantak and McElwee.
Major rule changes
- If an onside kick inside the final five minutes of the game does not go 10 yards, goes out of bounds, or is touched illegally, the receiving team will have the option of accepting the penalty and getting the ball immediately. Previously, the kicking team was penalized, but had another chance to kick again from five yards back.
- League officials encouraged networks to immediately cut to a commercial break if an instant replay challenge review was initiated. Previously networks were generally not permitted to utilize those game stoppages for their prescribed commercial periods.
- John Butler: A former General Manager with the Buffalo Bills, whose team qualified for Super Bowl XXVIII and the San Diego Chargers, he died of lymphoma on April 11, 2003.
- David Woodley: Having played for the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII, Woodley died from complications due to kidney and liver failure on May 4, 2003. Twenty years after Super Bowl XVII, he became the youngest Super Bowl starting quarterback to die, until the death of Super Bowl XXXIV starter Steve McNair at age 36 in 2009. Woodley was buried at St. Joseph Cemetery in Shreveport, alongside his parents.
Pro Football Hall of Fame
- Sid Gillman: A former head coach and general manager with the San Diego Chargers, Gillman died in his sleep on January 3, 2003, Gillman died in his sleep at age 91. He was interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Final regular season standings
- Indianapolis finished ahead of Tennessee in the AFC South based on head-to-head sweep (2–0).
- Denver clinched the AFC 6 seed instead of Miami based on better conference record (9–3 to 7–5).
- Buffalo finished ahead of N.Y. Jets in the AFC East based on better division record (2–4 to 1–5).
- Jacksonville finished ahead of Houston in the AFC South based on better division record (2–4 to 1–5).
- Oakland finished ahead of San Diego in the AFC West based on better conference record (3–9 to 2–10).
- Philadelphia clinched the NFC 1 seed instead of St. Louis based on better conference record (9–3 to 8–4).
- Seattle clinched the NFC 5 seed instead of Dallas based on strength of victory (.406 to .388).
Within each conference, the four division winners and the two wild card teams (the top two non-division winners with the best overall regular season records) qualified for the playoffs. The four division winners are seeded 1 through 4 based on their overall won-lost-tied record, and the wild card teams are seeded 5 and 6. The NFL does not use a fixed bracket playoff system, and there are no restrictions regarding teams from the same division matching up in any round. In the first round, dubbed the wild-card playoffs or wild-card weekend, the third-seeded division winner hosts the sixth seed wild card, and the fourth seed hosts the fifth. The 1 and 2 seeds from each conference then receive a bye in the first round. In the second round, the divisional playoffs, the number 1 seed hosts the worst surviving seed from the first round (seed 4, 5, or 6), while the number 2 seed will play the other team (seed 3, 4, or 5). The two surviving teams from each conference's divisional playoff games then meet in the respective AFC and NFC Conference Championship games, hosted by the higher seed. Although the Super Bowl, the fourth and final round of the playoffs, is played at a neutral site, the designated home team is based on an annual rotation by conference.
|1||New England Patriots (East winner)||Philadelphia Eagles (East winner)|
|2||Kansas City Chiefs (West winner)||St. Louis Rams (West winner)|
|3||Indianapolis Colts (South winner)||Carolina Panthers (South winner)|
|4||Baltimore Ravens (North winner)||Green Bay Packers (North winner)|
|5||Tennessee Titans (wild card)||Seattle Seahawks (wild card)|
|6||Denver Broncos (wild card)||Dallas Cowboys (wild card)|
|Jan. 3 – Bank of America Stadium||Jan. 10 – Edward Jones Dome|
|3||Carolina||29||Jan. 18 – Lincoln Financial Field|
|Jan. 4 – Lambeau Field||3||Carolina||14|
|Jan. 11 – Lincoln Financial Field|
|4||Green Bay||33*||Feb. 1 – Reliant Stadium|
|Wild Card playoffs|
|Jan. 4 – RCA Dome||N3||Carolina||29|
|Jan. 11 – Arrowhead Stadium|
|6||Denver||10||Super Bowl XXXVIII|
|3||Indianapolis||41||Jan. 18 – Gillette Stadium|
|Jan. 3 – M&T Bank Stadium||3||Indianapolis||14|
|Jan. 10 – Gillette Stadium|
- * Indicates overtime victory
- ** Indicates double overtime victory
The following teams and players set all-time NFL records during the season:
|Record||Player or team||Date/Opponent||Previous record holder|
|Most Touchdowns, Season||Priest Holmes, Kansas City (27)||December 28, vs. Chicago||Marshall Faulk, St. Louis, 2000 (26)|
|Most Rushing Yards Gained, Game||Jamal Lewis, Baltimore (295)||September 14, vs. Cleveland||Corey Dillon, Cincinnati vs. Denver, October 22, 2000 (278)|
|Most Consecutive Field Goals||Mike Vanderjagt, Indianapolis||December 28, at Houston||Gary Anderson, 1997–98 (40)|
|Most Consecutive Road Games Lost||Detroit Lions||December 21, vs. Carolina||Houston Oilers, 1981–84 (23)|
|Most consecutive games with a sack||Tampa Bay Buccaneers (69)||November 9, 2003||Dallas Cowboys (68)|
|Points scored||Kansas City Chiefs (484)|
|Total yards gained||Minnesota Vikings (6,294)|
|Yards rushing||Baltimore Ravens (2,674)|
|Yards passing||Indianapolis Colts (4,179)|
|Fewest points allowed||New England Patriots (238)|
|Fewest total yards allowed||Dallas Cowboys (4,056)|
|Fewest rushing yards allowed||Tennessee Titans (1,295)|
|Fewest passing yards allowed||Dallas Cowboys (2,631)|
|Scoring||Jeff Wilkins, St. Louis (163 points)|
|Touchdowns||Priest Holmes, Kansas City (27 TDs)|
|Most field goals made||Jeff Wilkins, St. Louis (39 FGs)|
|Rushing||Jamal Lewis, Baltimore (2,066 yards)|
|Passing||Steve McNair, Tennessee (100.4 rating)|
|Passing touchdowns||Brett Favre, Green Bay (32 TDs)|
|Pass receiving||Torry Holt, St. Louis (117 catches)|
|Pass receiving yards||Torry Holt, St. Louis (1,696)|
|Pass receiving touchdowns||Randy Moss, Minnesota (17 touchdowns)|
|Punt returns||Dante Hall, Kansas City (16.3 average yards)|
|Kickoff returns||Jerry Azumah, Chicago (29.0 average yards)|
|Interceptions||Brian Russell, Minnesota and Tony Parrish, San Francisco (9)|
|Punting||Shane Lechler, Oakland (46.9 average yards)|
|Sacks||Michael Strahan, New York Giants (18.5)|
|Most Valuable Player||Peyton Manning, quarterback, Indianapolis and Steve McNair, quarterback, Tennessee Titans|
|Coach of the Year||Bill Belichick, New England|
|Offensive Player of the Year||Jamal Lewis, running back, Baltimore|
|Defensive Player of the Year||Ray Lewis, linebacker, Baltimore|
|Offensive Rookie of the Year||Anquan Boldin, wide receiver, Arizona|
|Defensive Rookie of the Year||Terrell Suggs, linebacker, Baltimore|
|NFL Comeback Player of the Year||Jon Kitna, Quarterback, Cincinnati|
|Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year||Will Shields, Guard, Kansas|
|Super Bowl Most Valuable Player||Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England|
- Cincinnati Bengals – Marvin Lewis; replaced Dick LeBeau who was fired following the 2002 season.
- Dallas Cowboys – Bill Parcells; replaced Dave Campo who was fired following the 2002 season.
- Detroit Lions – Steve Mariucci; replaced Marty Mornhinweg who was fired following the 2002 season.
- Jacksonville Jaguars – Jack Del Rio; replaced Tom Coughlin who was fired following the 2002 season.
- San Francisco 49ers – Dennis Erickson; replaced Steve Mariucci who was fired following the 2002 season.
- Baltimore Ravens: Ravens Stadium was renamed M&T Bank Stadium after M&T Bank acquired the naming rights
- Chicago Bears: The Bears moved back to a newly renovated Soldier Field after temporarily playing in 2002 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois
- New England Patriots: CMGI Field was renamed Gillette Stadium after Gillette acquires the naming rights
- Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles moved from Veterans Stadium to Lincoln Financial Field, with Lincoln Financial Group acquiring the naming rights
- San Francisco 49ers: After the naming rights deal with 3Com expired, the stadium was officially renamed San Francisco Stadium at Candlestick Point instead of its original Candlestick Park name
In addition new turf was installed for the following teams:
- Atlanta Falcons: New FieldTurf surface
- Buffalo Bills: New AstroPlay home turf
- New Orleans Saints: New AstroPlay home turf by mid-season
- The Atlanta Falcons unveiled a new uniform design featuring red trim down the sides of both the jerseys and pants. The pants were switched from gray to white. Black remained the primary jersey color while a red alternate jersey was also introduced. The falcons helmet logo was redesigned to be more aggressive and closely resemble a capital "F".
- The Cincinnati Bengals added new alternate black pants with their black jerseys for select home games.
- The Cleveland Browns added new alternate orange pants last worn during the 1970s-early 1980s Kardiac Kids era of coach Sam Rutigliano.
- The Denver Broncos introduced blue pants with orange streaks to match with their blue jerseys.
- The Detroit Lions introduced a new design that added black trim to their logo and jerseys, and changed their face masks from blue to black.
- The Houston Texans added red third alternate uniforms.
- The Miami Dolphins added orange third alternate uniforms.
- The New England Patriots added silver third alternate uniforms.
- The New Orleans Saints wore gold pants full time, discontinuing using black pants with their white jerseys.
- The Philadelphia Eagles added silver trim to the jersey numbers on uniforms, and black third alternate uniforms.
- The San Diego Chargers wore white pants instead of blue with their white jerseys.
- The Tennessee Titans added powder blue third alternate uniforms.
- Gaughan, Mark (March 27, 2003). "Execs Plan Only Minor Procedures". The Buffalo News. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
- John Butler (1946-2003)
- Bikoff, Ken (May 7, 2003). "Woodley's death sad but powerful". Pro Football Weekly. Archived from the original on July 2, 2005. Retrieved September 1, 2007.
- Martin, Susan (January 4, 2003). "Legendary Gillman dies at 91". Buffalo News. Retrieved January 15, 2021.
- "Records". 2005 NFL Record and Fact Book. NFL. 2005. ISBN 978-1-932994-36-0.
- NFL Record and Fact Book (ISBN 1-932994-36-X)
- NFL History 2001– (Last accessed October 17, 2005)
- Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (ISBN 0-06-270174-6)