NFL rules for dummies: The basics on how American Football works and overtime explained ahead of London Games

·3-min read
NFL rules for dummies: The basics on how American Football works and overtime explained ahead of London Games

The NFL returns to London this month as the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium hosts two regular season games, following its successful debut in 2019.

As well as the devoted masses who follow the regular football season every Sunday, these London Games are prime-time for new fans and casual viewers to get involved. And if that’s you, then we’ve got you covered with our American Football basics.

How long is the game?

NFL games are 60 minutes long and are split into four 15-minute quarters. If the scores are level at the end of a game, a ten-minute overtime period will be played.

How does overtime work?

In overtime, both teams must get chance to take possession of the ball, unless the offense scores a touchdown on their opening possession, in which case they win the game. Once both teams have had the opportunity to take possession, the game becomes sudden death, meaning a score of any kind ends the game.

In the regular season, if the scores are level at the end of the first ten-minute period, the game ends in a tie. The overtime rule differes in postseason games, where multiple periods of overtime are played until a winner is determined.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Who are the players?

Although American football rosters can number more than 50 players, each team is only allowed 11 on the field at a time.

The bulk of the game pits offense (the team with the ball, trying to score), against defense (the team without it). The exception is on a few plays such as field goals and kick-offs, where both sides will use specific ‘special teams’ units, depending on the scenario.

Players usually specialise in a specific position on either offense or defense and are very rarely used elsewhere. Therefore, when possession changes hands, the entire team is usually replaced.

What does the pitch look like?

The main playing area is 100 yards long, with a 10-yard ‘endzone’ at either end, in which teams score touchdowns. There is also a set of goalposts at either end, which act as a target for kickers, similar to those used in rugby.

 (USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

What’s the objective?

Similar to most team sports, the objective is to work the ball down the field towards your opponent’s goal-line in order to score.

In order to do so, the team’s quarterback will usually either throw the ball downfield to a receiver, or hand the ball off to his running back, who will attempt to carry the ball forwards.

Teams get four attempts – known as ‘downs’ – to move the ball a total of at least 10 yards up the field. The first of these tries is ‘first down’, the next ‘second down’ and so on. Once they make it 10 yards (or further), the downs reset and it’s back to first down.

If a team has not made it ten yards after four downs, possession is turned over to the opposition.

As a result, teams facing fourth down will usually choose to either kick a field goal, if they are close enough to the posts, or else ‘punt’ the ball downfield, ensuring their opponents take possession closer to their own goal-line.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

How does the scoring work?

A touchdown is scored when the ball crosses the goal-line, into the endzone. This can be done either by carrying the ball into the endzone or throwing the ball to receiver who catches it in the endzone. The ball does not have to be grounded, and a touchdown is worth six points.

Following a touchdown, teams can either kick a conversion through the posts for one extra point, or attempt to score another touchdown from the two-yard line for two points.

Teams can also score by kicking field goals, worth three points, which usually happens when a team reaches fourth down inside the opponent’s half.

The other scoring play, known as a safety, is worth two points and occurs when the ball-carrier is tackled inside his own endzone or when the offense commits a foul inside their own endzone.

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