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NFL 101, Understanding the Game

Today I will take you from start to finish of an NFL game explaining it as best I can.

Coin Toss:

About 3 minutes before the start of the game, the captains from each team will meet an official in the middle of the field for the coin toss. The visiting teams’ captain will call the coin (heads or tails) before it is tossed. The winner of the coin toss with get to decide if their team will receive the ball or kick it first, and which goal his team will defend.

The team that starts the game kicking off will start as the defending team. The team that starts the game receiving will start as the offensive team.

Start – Kickoff:

An NFL game always starts with a kickoff. The football is placed on a kicking tee at the defensive team’s 30-yard line. The defensive team’s kicker will kick the ball down the field. When the ball is kicked the defensive players will start to run down the field to tackle the offensive player with the ball. The offensive team’s kick returner will catch the ball and run up the field as far as possible, while his teammates try to hold off the defensive players and make a clear path.

When the kick returner is tackled, where ever the ball lands will be the yardage it will start from for the next play. If the kick returner catches the ball in their end zone he can 1.) run it out of the end zone and as far up the field as he can, or 2.) take a knee to stop the play, which means the ball will then be placed at the offensive 20-yard line for the start of the next play.


A team is considered offense when they are in possession of the ball. The offensive team has the job of keeping control of the ball and trying to get past the defensive players on the opposing team to complete a First Down or get a touchdown. Wherever the ball lands the play before is where the next play will begin.


A team is considered defense when they do not have possession of the ball. The defensive team must hold back the offensive team and try to keep them from getting a 1st down or touchdown. The Defense must protect their team’s end zone and keep the other team’s offense away from it, so they do not score a touchdown.

Switching Rolls:

The offense and defense switch from team to team all throughout the game. There are many different ways teams can switch roles:

  • No first down – The main way is to keep the other team’s offense from completing a first down. If a team’s defense stops the other team’s offense from getting a first down in 4 plays then the defense will become offense.
  • Points scored – If a team’s offense scores points from a field goal or touchdowns they will then become defense.
  • Turnovers – When a team’s offense accidentally turns over the ball to the other teams defense from either an interception or fumble.
    • Fumble – If the offensive player that has the ball drops it, all players on the field work hard to be the one to recover it. If a defensive player recovers it, the defense will become offense.
    • Interception – When an offensive player throws a pass to a teammate but a defensive player catches the ball.

First Down:

All movements or progress on the football field during a game is measured out by yards. Wherever the ball lands after the starting kick off, 10 yards is measured out from that location. You will find two orange and black markers on the side of the field held by two officials and mark each first down. The offense gets 4 downs/plays/chances to get past those 10 yards with each new down starting wherever the ball lands from the play before. Between the two first down markers on the side of the field you will see another marker with a number on it that indicates the down that is being played.

  • They did it. If the offensive reaches the 10 yard mark, they complete that “1st down” and it starts again with 10 yards being measured from where the ball landed.
  • Couldn’t do it. If the offensive team does not get close enough to the first down mark by the 3rd play, they have the option to either punt it or run it during the 4th play. If they punt (kick) the ball it will travel further down the field pushing the defensive team further away from the offensive team’s end zone. If the offensive team runs it in hopes they cross that line, they only have that one play to do it, or the defensive team will get the ball where it lands for the next play and become the offense.


The object of the game is to score as many points as possible. There are different ways to get points in football:

  • Touchdown = 6 points. A Touchdown is the best way to score the most points. This is when a player carries the ball crosses the goal line of the other team’s end zone. When a touchdown is scored by a team they are also given the chance for extra points by 1.) kicking a field goal for 1 extra point , or 2.) run the ball into the other team’s end zone for 2 extra points (much harder to do).
  • Field Goal = 3 points. A field goal is when the offensive team kicks the ball through the defensive team’s goal post. The ball must make it over the crossbar of the goal post, and in between the upright posts. A field goal is usually kicked when the offensive team is unable to complete a first down by the 3rd down, but feels they are close enough to make a field goal (usually about the defense’s 45-yard line or closer).
  • Safety = 2 points. A safety is when a defensive player tackles the ball carrier of the offense in the offense’s end zone. The two points are then given to the on defense.


Each NFL game is divided into 4 quarters that are 15 minutes each. In between the 1st and the 2nd quarter there is a 2 minute beak as well as between the 3rd and 4th quarter. There is a 12 minute break between the 2nd and 3rd quarter that is called the “halftime”. The 2nd and 4th quarter begin where the game left off the last play of the quarter before, while the 1st and 3rd quarter start with a kickoff.

During a game the clock is stopped for each time a player goes out-of-bounds with the ball, when an incomplete pass occurs, when an official calls a penalty, and when a play ends. At the end of each play the offense has 40 seconds to strategies, call a new play, and snap the ball to begin the play. If the offense goes over this time an official will call a penalty known as a “delay of game”.

When the game is over the team with the most points wins. If there is a tie the game goes into overtime which is 15 minutes. Overtime begins with a coin toss to decide which starts with possession of the ball. The first team to score wins the game.




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