Johnny Grier became the first African-American in NFL history to be promoted to referee. Grier replaced long time referee Bob Frederic, who retired in the offseason. Grier was the field judge in the previous season's Super Bowl XXII, which was the same game that Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
A standard system of two time intervals between plays are established (and would be timed using the play clock): For normal plays, the offensive team has 45 seconds to snap the ball after the previous play is signaled dead. After time outs and other administrative stoppages, the time limit is 30 seconds beginning after the Referee signals that the ball is ready to resume play.
If a fumble occurs during an extra point attempt, only the fumbling player can recover and/or advance the ball. This change closes a loophole in the "Stabler Fumble Rule" that was enacted during the 1979 NFL season in reaction to the Holy Roller Game.
The penalty for "Running into the kicker" is changed from five yards and a first down to just 5 yards.
Referees were outfitted with white hats while all other officials wore black hats, which was the standard practice in college and high school football. From 1979 through 1987, referees wore black hats while all other officials wore white hats.
Cincinnati was the top AFC playoff seed ahead of Buffalo based on head-to-head victory (1–0).
Indianapolis finished ahead of New England in the AFC East based on better record against common opponents (7–5 to Patriots’ 6–6).
Cleveland finished ahead of Houston in the AFC Central based on better division record (4–2 to Oilers’ 3–3).
San Francisco was the second NFC playoff seed ahead of Philadelphia on better record against common opponents (5–3 to Eagles’ 5–4).
Philadelphia finished first in the NFC East based on head-to-head sweep of the N.Y. Giants (2–0).
Washington finished third in the NFC East based on better division record (4–4) than Phoenix (3–5).
Detroit finished fourth in the NFC Central based on head-to-head sweep of Green Bay (2–0).
San Francisco finished first in the NFC West based on better head-to-head record (3–1) against the L.A. Rams (2–2) and New Orleans (1–3).
The L.A. Rams finished second in the NFC West based on better division record (4–2) than New Orleans (3–3).
Rams earned the #2 NFC Wild Card based on better conference record (8–4, .667) than the N.Y. Giants (9–5, .642) and New Orleans (6–6, .500).
NOTE: Rams-Giants-Saints conference record tiebreaker: best winning percentage (2nd figure shown in parenthesis) vs same-conference opponents. NY Giants had finished 5th in NFC East in 1987. Any 5th place team would in following season play 14 in-conference and 2 out-of-conference teams. For 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th place teams, it's 12 in-conference and 4 out-of-conference teams.
NOTE: The Cincinnati Bengals (the AFC 1 seed) did not play the Houston Oilers (the 5 seed), nor did the Chicago Bears (the NFC 1 seed) play the Minnesota Vikings (the 4 seed), in the Divisional playoff round because those teams were in the same division.
The Green Bay Packers removed the elliptical green circles with the player's number from the hip area of the pants, an addition made in 1984 by former coach Forrest Gregg.
The San Diego Chargers switched to a darker shade of blue on their jerseys, from gold to blue face masks, and from gold to white lightning bolts. The helmets remained unchanged until a complete redesign in 2007.