National Football League (NFL) 101
Everything you need to know about the biggest sport in the United States.
American football is the most popular sport in the US. From debating who the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) is, discussing multi-million dollar contracts for players, tailgating outside stadiums before games, to planning a watch-party for the Super Bowl - it’s a sport that is integrated as a second culture to Americans.
At the college level, teams (composed of college students) compete at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) level, and professional football players compete within the National Football League (NFL), one of the major North American professional sports leagues.
The National Football League is a professional American football league that consists of 32 teams, divided equally between two parts (called “conferences”): the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).
Generally, the ‘Regular’ season is spread over an 18-week long period: it starts in September every year and lasts till early January of the following year. The NFL then advances to the ‘Playoffs’ stage, before the final ‘Super Bowl’ game is played (typically in February or March every year).
Structure of the Sport
The sport features an overall 32 teams that are divided equally between the two conferences (AFC and NFC). Each conference consists of 4 divisions - East Division, North Division, South Division, and West Division. Here’s a quick breakdown to better understand the current overall structure of the two conferences:
The NFL schedules which teams play each other on a yearly basis using a premeditated algorithm, which accounts for the current season’s division standings as well as the final division standings from the previous season. Generally, each team plays the other three teams in its own division twice (6 games), all four teams from one of the divisions in its own conference once (4 games), all four teams from one of the divisions in the other conference once (4 games), two additional intra-conference (within its own conference) games (2 games), and one additional inter-conference (from the other conference) game (1 game) - in total playing 17 games during the ‘Regular’ season.
The ‘Regular’ season then advances to the ‘Playoffs’, a single-elimination tournament that comprises 14 teams in total: 8 division winners (four teams from each conference) and 6 wild-card teams (three from each conference). The number of wild-card teams has been changing for several years, but these are teams that have not won their respective conference’s division, yet have the overall best record within their respective conferences.
From here, teams contend for their respective conference’s championship, and the tournament culminates with the Super Bowl, which is the final game contested between the AFC champion and NFC champion. The excitement of the finals (Super Bowl), can be felt strongly throughout the country. The hype for this nationwide event is real - the cheapest tickets for the Super Bowl start retailing at $3000-$4000.
Basic Rules of the Game
The main aim of the game is to move the football towards the opposition team’s end zone to score a ‘touchdown’. Players either run down the football field with the football in their hands, or throw the football down the field towards a teammate, who ultimately may score the touchdown and earn points for the team.
A team earns 6 points with a touchdown, and earns up to 2 more points depending on whether the team decides to kick the ball between the two poles of the opposition’s field goal (1 point) or by taking the ball into the opposition’s end zone again (2 points).
At any given point of the game, no team can have more than 11 players on the field. Teams generally switch their entire set of 11 players on the field, depending on the team’s offensive or defensive position in the game.
The game is played for a total of 60 minutes, divided into four 15-minute quarters, with a 10-15 minute long half-time break after the first two quarters. Regular season games, if tied, have an overtime period of 10 minutes (Playoff games have a 15-minute overtime period) to determine the winner of the game.
Famous Game Positions
The QB acts as the field general for the team, calls the plays, and initiates the action. He’s the one who either hands the ball to the running back in the team, passes the ball to a receiver, or may run with the ball himself. Quarterbacks are the masterminds behind every team and they must be able to throw the football with force and sheer accuracy.
Running Back (“RB”)
Also known as the “Halfback”, the Running Back either lines up behind or beside the Quarterback, and is usually the one you see sprinting across the field to catch the football when the QB throws the football. Running Backs are quick runners and are responsible to drive their team’s position closer towards the opposition’s touchdown zone.
This is the first line of defence for a team and it consists of three or four players who line up opposite the offensive line. They’re responsible to block the opposition’s offensive linemen, tackle ball carriers (usually Running Backs of the opposing team), and prevent the Quarterbacks from throwing the football and making a pass.
The Kicker is responsible for kickoffs and field goals (earning 1 point for the team after a successful touchdown). Kickers must be strong-legged and extremely accurate with their kicks to make the football cross between the two upright poles of the opposition’s field goal.
The Legends of NFL
Rankings in the NFL are very controversial. “Who is the G.O.A.T.?” is very subjective and people argue between Jim Brown, Tom Brady, Jerry Rice and Laurence Taylor for the #1 player title. Despite multiple debates, most would agree that Tom Brady is the G.O.A.T.
Statistically, the most successful teams include Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, and Los Angeles Chargers.
The NFL has seen an explosive growth in the last 25 years. The Super Bowl is a highly commercialised event with some of the top-rated artists performing gigs during the half-time of the final game. The sport is linked to country, tradition, family, and a sense of togetherness.