A lovely Bulgarian-born friend of mine decided she wanted to learn enough about American football to follow and enjoy a game. She put out a call for a coach to guide her through the basics, and with Playoffs right around the corner (tomorrow!), now’s as good a time as any to start.
Conferences & Divisions
There are two conferences in the National Football League (NFL) – the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Each conference is divided into divisions (North, South, East, and West), with 4 teams in each division, 16 teams in each conference, and 32 teams in the entire league.
Teams are named by their location and their team name (such as the Atlanta Falcons), but you’ll see/hear them referred to shorthand by just their location (Atlanta) or just their team name (the Falcons). Being familiar with all the teams is helpful, but if you don’t feel like learning all 32, focus on your chosen team’s division, and at a broader level, their conference.
There are many intra-division rivals (Bears-Packers, Cowboys-Giants), as well as intra-conference rivals (Colts-Patriots). (And plenty of others, I’m sure.)
Season & Play Basics
There are three sections of the football season: pre-season, regular season, and the playoffs.
Fans pay minimal attention to the pre-season games because they don’t count towards a team’s overall record. The pre-season starts in August and is used to finalize a team’s roster, so is important to rookies, new players, and perennial benchwarmers. Unless these players make the cut, this is likely the only time you’ll see these players unless there’s an injury or they get some playing time at the end of the season. Coaches also use the pre-season to test out new plays. The pre-season is a way to ease yourself back into the onslaught of the regular season (primarily having no free time on Sunday afternoons for the rest of the year).
The regular season is 17 weeks long, starting around the beginning of September. Each teams play 16 games (8 at home and 8 away) and have a week off (their “bye week”). These regular season games are the ones that determine which teams make the playoffs. During the regular season, tell your non-football-loving friends that you’ll be unavailable from noon onwards, as games run at 1/1:30 PM, 4/4:30 PM, and 8/8:30 PM. The 8/8:30 PM game is ingeniously called Sunday Night Football. Monday Night Football follows 24 hours later, and gives you something to look forward to on Mondays. Later in the season, the Thursday Night Football games start (broadcast on the NFL Network), and there are even some occasional Saturday afternoon games.
In the last few weeks of the regular season, the playoffs frenzy starts, where the professional and armchair analysts start overanalyzing every single came and every single possible outcome to try to accurately predict which teams will make it to the playoffs. Six teams make the playoffs from each conference: the winner of each of the four divisions, and two wild cards. The division winners are the team in the division with the best record; in the case of a tie, there is a whole slew of tie breakers – the one that gets the most attention is the divisional record. The two wild card teams are the two non-divisional champions with the best records (and these teams may have better records than some of the divisional champions).
The second aspect to the playoffs are the seeds. The four divisional champions are ranked in order, 1 through 4 seeds, based on their records. The top 2 seeds get first round byes, meaning that they do not play in the first week of the playoffs. The first round bye is typically seen as an advantage, because the players get a week off to rest and prepare for the next game.
In each conference, the playoffs games are as follows:
- Week 1: the 3 and 6 seeds play each other and the 4 and 5 seeds play each other.
- Week 2: the 1 seed plays the lowest remaining seed and the 2 seed plays the highest remaining seed.
- Week 3: the winner of the two games in week 2 goes on to play in the conference championship.
The two conference champions meet in the Super Bowl, which is held two weeks after the conference championship games. During these two weeks, fans console themselves over the fact that their team didn’t make the Super Bowl or gloat that they did. Other fans may use this time to reflect and decide which team, if any, they will root for in the Super Bowl (the enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all). Bored fans may tune into the Pro Bowl.
Hopefully this is enough to get you started. I’ll be back tonight or tomorrow morning with basics of game play, just in time to watch the Saints play the Seahawks on Saturday at 4:30 PM!