A quick guide to American football

American football has a massive following around the world, but none more so than in the USA where many believe it may have replaced baseball as “America’s favourite pastime”. In fact, it’s so big in the States that certain college football games have had attendances of more than 100,000 people.

To a newcomer American football can look incredibly complex and, at times, chaotic. Players running all of the show tackling each other whether they have the ball or not, forward passes, and a confusing scoring system. In reality, once you understand the basics, American football can be one of the most exciting sports to watch. Here’s a short guide to the NFL.

The game

Baltimore Ravens on the offensive
Image source: musiccitymiracles.com

As is the case with most American sports, play isn’t split into just a first and second half, but rather into four 15 minute quarters with a 12 minute halftime break following the end of the second quarter. Each team is given three timeouts per half which can be called at any time to stop play.
While teams are made up of more than 45 players each, each side only has 11 players on the field at any one time. The attacking team (known as the offence) is led by a quarterback who dictates play and whose primary objective is to try and get the ball into the end zone.
The clock will stop automatically in the event of a penalty, if player goes out of bounds or if a pass isn’t caught by the receiver. Often a 60 minute game of football can take more than three hours to end.


Miami Dolphins running in a touchdown
Image source: nine.com.au

Downs are one of the most confusing things to grasp about American football, but once you understand how they work it makes the games ten times easier to understand.
Each time the offence takes the field (known as starting an offensive drive) they are given four chances (downs) to move the ball at least 10 yards towards the opponent’s end zone. Each time they gain 10 yards the count is reset and starts on the first down.
If they don’t manage to move the ball the required 10 yards the ball is turned over and the opposing team makes their attempt to score.


Green Bay and Chicago battle it out
Image source: si.com

As with every other sport, the main aim of American football is to outscore your opponent. There are four scoring opportunities in American football:


A touchdown is scored when the ball is carried, or passed and caught, in the opponent’s end zone. A touchdown is worth six points, and unlike rugby, the ball does not have to be grounded once it has been carried over the line.

Extra point

Following a touchdown, the attacking team is given an opportunity to earn an additional point by kicking the ball through the posts (like a conversion in rugby). Teams can earn two points by carrying the ball into the end zone again, but they only get one opportunity and if they don’t convert the chance they lose out on the extra point.

Field goal

If a kicker is within range, the coach might choose to go for a field goal and try to secure three additional points. This is typically done in the fourth down if it looks unlikely that they will be able to reset the down counter.


If a defending player can tackle an attacking player (with the ball) in their own end zone he’ll earn two points for his side.

Making a play

New York Giants making the playImage source: tampabay.com
These are movements often decided by the head coach or quarterback with the aim of moving the ball towards the end zone. The term is usually referred to attacking teams, however defending teams also use set players to stop the ball and their opponents moving forward towards.
The attacking team has 40 seconds to begin each play. If the play clock runs out, they will be penalised and forced to move the ball backwards.

Hopefully this guide has given you the tools to be able to watch and enjoy the physical game of American football. Once you’re comfortable, head over to our Football page and place your next bet. With the most competitive odds on every single fixture in the NFL, CFL and NCAA football seasons, you’ll have everything you need to get going.

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Published: 11/15/2019