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American Football for dummies...

As the NFL season hots up, learn the gridiron basics before we publish our new NFL column tomorrow.

Image: ALBERT PENA/LANDOV/Press Association Images

Ahead of his new series on the NFL, Steven O’Rourke provides readers of The Score with a brief introduction to American football.

The League:

The NFL contains 32 teams split into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).

Each conference is separated into four divisions, North, South, East and West with four teams in each. You can find a breakdown of each division here.

The Regular Season:

Each team plays 16 regular season games over a period of 17 weeks. The schedule is structured so that a team in, say, the AFC North must play two games, home and away, against their three division rivals.

They must also play four games against the teams that make up one other AFC division, the AFC South for example.

If a team finished first in their division the previous year they also face a game each against the team that finished in the same position in the remaining two conference divisions, in this case the AFC East and AFC West.

The remaining four games take place against teams from a division within the NFC.

The Playoffs:

When the regular season ends in early January, the winner of each division is ranked from one to four within their conference, based on their win/loss ratio.

On top of that, the two divisional runners up with the best records are ranked five and six.

The first weekend of the playoffs, known as the wild card weekend, pits the teams ranked three and four in home games against the teams ranked five and six.

The winners of these games must then play away games against the teams ranked one and two in the divisional playoffs, effectively the conference semi-finals. The winners of these divisional playoffs contest the conference championship, with the highest ranked team having the advantage of playing at home.

The winners of each conference, the AFC and NFC, then play each other in the Super Bowl, the most watched sporting event in a non-FIFA World Cup year.

The Rules:

An American football pitch is 120 yards long and 53.3 yards wide.

While a game is supposed to last for one hour, broken down into four 15 minute quarters, timeouts, halftime and breaks in play mean that most games take three hours to complete.

Each team has specialists on offense, defence and special teams but never have more than 11 players on the field at one time. In the NFL there are 45 active players allowed on every team which is why you see so many people standing along the sidelines during a game.

Possession in American football is similar to rugby league, with each offense having four ‘downs’ to advance the ball 10 yards. When the offense succeeds in moving the ball at least ten yards, they are awarded with a fresh set of downs, meaning they have four more attempts.

In most cases, if a team has failed to move the ball forward 10 yards they ‘punt’ the ball away (like kicking for position in rugby) or kick a ‘field goal’ (worth 3 points) if within range.  A ‘touchdown’ is scored by getting the ball into the end zone and is worth six points, with the ‘point after’ (think conversion in rugby) worth one.

To move the ball, a team can choose to run or throw, but only one forward pass is allowed in each play.

The quarter back is perhaps the most well-known position in American football and, like an on-field general, he decides whether a play will involve a run, a pass or, in some cases, both.

Trick plays, known as ‘play action’ are also used to fool defences.

There is much more to American football than I could possibly cover in this introduction but if you follow The Score’s coverage of the NFL over the next few weeks I’ll address as much of it as I can.

Steven O’Rourke is the offensive coordinator of Tullamore Phoenix American Football Club. When not obsessing with football he can be found at 4fortyfour.

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Steven O'Rourke

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