10 Things You Need to Know to Watch an NFL Game

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On Sunday, there will be football. There will be football…and lots of it. This causes me to rejoice in ways that are too over-the-top for words. I literally cannot contain my excitement. However, I know that there are plenty of other women in the world who do not share those sentiments, and, in fact, harbor the exact opposite sentiments to the beginning of the 2013 NFL season.

If that’s you, I’m begging you: don’t spend this Sunday or any other Sunday starring blankly at the TV, hating your life. Come join us at Football for Normal Girls! You’ll learn some new things, laugh a ton, and the prospect of in-season Sundays will no longer make you panic and/or mourn. This can be FUN. I promise!

Just test it out today. Start with this post, print or pin or save the little cheat sheet above – whatever floats your boat – and see if it makes your weekend any easier.

And then come back on Monday. Because if you can’t beat the NFL season, you might as well join us over at Football for Normal Girls!!!

10 Things You Need to Know to Watch an NFL Game

1. 3 Units: Offense, Defense, Special Teams

The offense is the unit with the ball. See the quarterback? He’s on the offensive side. The defense is the unit on the other side. See all of the burly men running towards the quarterback/ball carrier? That’s the defensive unit. Special teams is the unit that comes out for kickoffs, extra points, and field goals.

Need more? Check out the Basics of Offense, the Basics of Defense, and the Basics of Special Teams.

2. 11 men on the field for each unit

Each unit is only allowed to have 11 men on the field at all times – having more than that on the field will earn a penalty. If you see a player sprinting off the field prior to the snap, chances are a whistle and a flag will soon be following him (unless he makes it off in time).

3. The offense’s job is to score

The offense is the unit with the ball. Their job is to score points, which they can do by running the ball into the end zone for a touchdown, passing it into the end zone for a touchdown, or kicking a field goal.

4. The defense’s job is also to score

The defense, contrary to popular belief, is not just trying to stop the progress of the offense. That’s actually their second job. Their first job is to get the ball away from the offense and score points. They can do this by forcing and recovering a fumble (where the ball carrier loses the ball) or by an interception (where a defender catches a ball intended for an offensive player) and then running the ball into the end zone for a touchdown. (Don’t fry your brain, but the defense can also force a safety, which is worth 2-points.)

Just to clarify: if the defense recovers possession of the football via a fumble or an interception and they don’t score any points right then and there, their team’s offense takes over and tries to score the same as they would in any other offensive possession.

5. 2 halves // 4 quarters // 15 min each

NFL games consist of four 15-minute quarters. There are 2 quarters per half. Halftime is the break in between those halves. (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you probably could have come up with that on your own.) Common misconception: each team doesn’t have their “own” end zone that stays the same for the entire game. Teams switch sides of the field at the end of the first and the third quarter to create fair playing conditions for both teams. Also, play continues as normal at the end of the first and the third quarter – so if a team ends the first quarter with a 1st down at the 40 yard line, they’ll start the second quarter with a 1st down at the 40 yard line (on the other side of the field, because the sides have been switched). But at the end of each half, play stops. At the start of the second half, the team that didn’t kickoff to start the game kicks off to start the third quarter after halftime and a new drive ensues. At the end of the second half…the game is over (another helpful hint! this website rocks!) – unless the score is tied, in which case it’s time for #10 (!!!).

6. Game clock + Play clock (both matter)

The game clock keeps track of how much time is left in the 15-minute quarter. The game clock stops for many reasons, including but not limited to: time outs, penalties, and change of possession. The play clock keeps track of how much time the offense has left to make a play – either 25 or 40 seconds, depending on the situation (this post all about clocks will help tremendously). Mostly, just know that the offense has a limited amount of time from the end of one play to start the next play, and the play clock accounts for that.

7. It’s all about the downs

Once the offense starts their new possession, they have four chances, called “downs,” to move the ball 10 yards from where they started (this place is called “the line of scrimmage”). Each play is then calculated by what chance (down) the offense is on and how many yards they have left until they reach 10 yards total. Once they reach or exceed the 10 yards in one set of downs, they get a new set – four more chances to move the ball 10 more yards.

Here’s an example: it’s the start of a new drive (possession) for the offense. That means the down and distance is 1st and 10 (1st down and 10 yards left to go). On the first play the quarterback passes the ball to a running back who gains 4 yards. The new down and distance is 2nd and 6 because it’s the 2nd down and there are 6 yards left to go until the offense reaches 10 yards gained total (10 needed – 4 gained = 6 left). On the next play the quarterback throws the ball to a wide receiver who catches it and gains 3 yards. Now the down and distance is 3rd and 3 (10 needed – 7 total gained = 3 left). On the next play the quarterback gets pressured and tries to run. He gains 2 yards. Down and distance: 4th and 1 (10 needed – 9 total gained = 1 left).

4th down throws everything into a ruckus. Let’s talk about that.

(If you are still unclear about this whole down situation, check out this post.)

8. 4th down options

Teams try to avoid 4th down situations, because, as aforementioned, 4th downs cause anxiety and intensity. Ideally, a team would like to earn a new set of downs before arriving at 4th down. However, at 4th down, the offense has three choices: punt, kick a field goal, or try one more time to earn a new set of downs. How do they decide what to do? It depends on where they are on the field and what the game situation is.

The offense will usually punt when on their own side of the field (the 50 yards connected to their end zone) or fairly close to it. They will usually opt for a field goal if they are within range (30-50 yards is typical for an NFL field goal attempt). They’ll usually try to get the remaining yards needed for a new set of downs (or “go for it”) when the yardage is short (4th and 1 or 4th and inches) and the team believes they can either convert (get the 1st down) or hand the ball over on downs without sacrificing too much field position – because if they don’t get the 1st down, they give the other team the ball right where they are.

None of those situations matter if it’s late in the game and the offense needs to score to win the game. In that scenario, no matter where they are on the field on 4th down, they’ll likely go for it. These are usually “Hail Mary” plays.

9. Touchdowns are not worth 7 points

True story. Touchdowns are worth 6 points; the extra point (or PAT, Point After Touchdown) is kicked from the 2-yard line and is worth…you guessed it!…1 extra point. Teams can also opt to go for 2 by running or passing it into the end zone from the 2-yard line. Also, field goals are worth 3 points. Just throwing (or kicking) that out there.

10. We live for overtime

Overtime is when all that is good in the world gets even better. Overtime is a nail-biting, heart-racing, pull-all-of-your-hair-out ode to competitive sports at it’s finest. In overtime, if the team on offense scores a touchdown on their first possession, they win. Game over. But if they either don’t score or only score a field goal, the other team has a chance to possess the ball and score. After both teams have had a chance to possess the ball (unless, of course, the team who had the ball first scored a touchdown), the next score wins – any score, not just a touchdown. If the 15-minute overtime period ends and the game is still tied…that’s it. Tie game. (This is where we all write to the NFL and petition for a rule change because if overtime is the apex of all that is good in sports, ties are the wettest wet blanket in all of sports.)

Got it?! Of course you do!!! But if you do have any questions between now and Sunday, flip through the Archives, the Glossary, follow FNG on Twitter and Facebook, or shoot me an email! I’m always happy to help.

Thanks for stopping by today! Go have a GREAT weekend!!!

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4 Responses to “10 Things You Need to Know to Watch an NFL Game”

  1. Aaliyah December 11, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    I come from a family with a history of being deeply involved with basketball for decades (2 uncles and a cousin have played in the NBA!). That means we are very very *very* obsessed with basketball. Years ago, I happened to marry into a football loving family, not knowing a thing about football except what it has similar to basketball (play clock like a shot clock, overtime, etc.). This year, my husband is so much deeper into football than he regularly is, and I knew that if I wanted to keep up, I’d have to learn more about football. This has been a great resource. I can now watch an NFL game without asking questions like “What’s a down?” and “Why is he running the other way?”. Great guide!

    • Beka December 11, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

      This makes me SO happy, Aaliyah. I’m so glad you found Football for Normal Girls, and so glad it proved helpful! Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment :) Hope you are a great rest of the season! Thanks again!

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