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People say that watching a game of American Football involves too much stopping and starting, is boring and difficult to understand. Well, this is complete nonsense in my opinion! It’s because they haven’t even tried to understand it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but if you were to total up all the exciting bits of a football(soccer) game or a cricket match compared to an NFL game, I know which one I’d rather spend time watching!

If you’re new to American Football and have started watching games on TV, or fancy a trip to London to soak up the fantastic atmosphere of a live NFL game at an NFL London match, then read on to help improve your understanding and enjoyment of the game. You don’t need to know all the little intricacies of the game to enjoy it. I’ve been watching the game since 1985 and I still feel like I’m learning. Even so, I don’t ever feel like I’m missing out and I really do feel like the NFL actually is the ‘greatest show on turf!’.

Take a few moments to read through this page (as well as the Team Positions and Terminology pages) and you’ll pick something up that will help you understand and enjoy this great game a little more.

NFL Playing Field

NFL playing field

The playing area of an NFL field is 100 yards long by 53.33 yards wide. Each end zone is 10 yards deep, making the total length of the field 120 yards. The goal posts are situated at the rear edge of each end zone (represented by the small lines in the above diagram).

The aim of the offense is to gain 10 yards within it’s 4 attempts (known as “plays” or “downs”) until it reaches and goes over the opposition’s goal line. Every time a team gains 10 or more yards, the ‘down’ count returns to 4 and they have 4 more chances to move another 10-yards downfield. When they gain the 10-yards needed, they are said to have “gained a first down”.

The field of play has a ‘hash-mark’ every 1 yard which run down either sideline and just off centre of the field. Every 5 yards there are lines running from sideline to sideline. Every 10-yards is marked by the appropriate number and a small arrow to indicate which half of the field the game is currently taking part in. These small arrows help out when watching a game on TV.

The aim of the game is to get the ball over the oppositions goal line to score a touchdown or to kick the ball through the goal posts for a field goal.

Objective of the Game

NFL Official, Ed Hochuli, signalling Touchdown

NFL Official, Ed Hochuli, signalling a Touchdown.

Like most sports, the objective of an NFL game is to outscore the opponent. Points are scored when one of the following happens:

Touchdown

The most exciting and rewarding method is to score points is by a touchdown. This occurs when a player carries or catches the ball in the oppositions endzone. If the player has possession of the ball outside of the endzone and attempts to carry it into the end zone then the ball only has to ‘break the plane’ of the goal line. So long as any part of the ball touches, crosses or is above the goal line whilst in possession of a player then it is a touchdown.

A touchdown will earn the scoring team 6 points.

Extra Point

After the team has scored a touchdown they attempt to kick the ball through the goalposts. This is called an ‘extra point’ and is worth……you’ve guessed it, 1 point.

2-Point Conversion

Sometimes the game situation calls for slightly more drastic action. If the team that has just scored a touchdown decides they need more points they can opt to try a 2-point conversion instead of settling for an Extra Point. A 2-point conversion sets up from the 2-yard line and plays out the same as a regular play with the offence (the team with the ball and attempting the 2-point conversion) attempting to get across the goal line on one play, this can be a run or a passing play.

If successful the 2-point conversion scores 2 points instead of just 1.

Field Goal

If the team on offense (the team with the ball) fails to make it into the oppositions endzone for a touchdown, on their 4th down, they will usually try for a field goal if they are close enough to the opposition’s end zone to do so (usually 40-yards or less away). A field goal is successful if the Kicker manages to kick the ball between the goal posts.

A field goal scores 3 points.

Safety

Safeties aren’t a regular occurrence in a game of American Football and are usually a sign that something has gone wrong when they do happen. If the offence (the team with the ball) are tackled in their own endzone or the ball goes out of the back of their endzone then the defense ( the team without the ball) scores points for their team as a reward.

A safety scores 2 points.

Playing Positions

To find out about the different playing positions on an NFL team’s offense and defense, click on the buttons below to find out who’s who and what they’re trying to do.

Game Length

NFL Scoreboard

An NFL game is played over 60 minutes and split into four 15-minute ‘periods’ or ‘quarters’. After the first and third quarters, there is a 2-minute break and the teams swap ends. After the second quarter, there is a 12-minute break known as “half time”.

The play clock stops during play for various reasons, if, for example, the ball goes out of bounds or if there is an injury. This together with timeouts and other stoppages add to the length of a game. As a viewer, you’ll probably spend up to 3 hours watching a game if you watch from kickoff to final whistle.

Starting a Game

The game starts with a coin toss to determine who starts with the ball and which end zone they will play towards first. The team winning the coin-toss can decide to kick off or receive the ball first. If they choose to receive the ball first, they will have to kickoff at the start of the second half and vice-versa.

NFL Coin Toss

Regular Play

After the coin toss and kickoff, it is time to start the regular play phase. This is the part of the game where one team is on offense trying to score points and the other is on defense trying to stop them.

NFL formations

The offense has four attempts, known as ‘downs’, to move the ball 10-yards. They start on ‘First Down and Ten’  (‘1st & 10’) meaning it’s their 1st of 4 plays and they have to gain 10-yards. If they gain 2-yards on their 1st down, they would then be on their 2nd down which would be displayed as ‘2nd & 8’, because they are on their 2nd down and still have to gain 8 yards to complete the 10-yard requirement.

Now, rewind back to their 1st down. Let’s imagine the offense had gained no yards on that first play. Their next play would be ‘2nd & 10’ because they still need to gain 10-yards.

If they gain the ten yards, or more, then they go back to being at ‘1st & 10’ and have another 4 attempts to gain another 10 yards from the point on the field they got to on their last play. This continues until the offense scores or turns the ball over to the defense. The opposition can get the ball via an interception, fumble (see Terminology page) or if the other team is on offense and fails to gain the required 10-yards in 4 downs.

If the offense are good, they move the ball all the way to or over the defense’s goal line, which is known as a touchdown and scores them 6 points.

After the touchdown and extra point, the game restarts with the scoring team kicking the ball to the opposition from their own 35-yard line. The opposite team then goes on offense and attempts to score. They start from either the 25-yard line if the ball goes far enough to reach the returning team’s endzone and they decide not to return it, or if they do decide to run the kick back they start from where they get to before the ball-carrier is tackled and stopped by the kicking team.

If the defense stops the offense from gaining 10 yards during their first 3 downs, the offense usually ‘punts’ the ball to the defensive team. A punt is when a player (the punter) kicks the ball out of his hands as far as he can down field in an attempt to pin the opposition as far back in their own half as possible. The opposition then get the ball and their offense has to try to move the ball towards the other end zone.

If, after the offense’s 3rd down, they don’t think they will gain the remaining yards needed for a 1st down, but think they are close enough to kick a field goal (instead of having to punt), they will send out their special teams who will make a field goal attempt. If they are successful they will gain 3 points. After a successful field goal, the scoring team kicks off. If the field goal fails then the defense gets the ball back at the point of the failed field goal attempt.This may all seem a little confusing but once you’ve watched a couple of games, and maybe skimmed this page again, I’m sure it’ll all start falling into place and make sense.

This may all seem a little confusing but once you’ve watched a couple of games, and maybe skimmed this page again, I’m sure it’ll all start falling into place and make sense.

Don’t forget to check out the Terminology page for explanations of the language of football.