The Most Important NFL Rules to Know If You’re a First-Time Football Fan

Football season is life to some and a complete stranger to others. But if you’re someone who never had an interest in the NFL but are now determined to get involved in America’s favorite sport, it would help to know a few of the most basic rules. This way, you’ll go into the season knowing a little more about the game, which will help for football conversations and make each game a little more enjoyable.

A first down stops the clock in college football, but not in the NFL
The NFL has plenty of rules, but these ones are the most basic. | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The NFL is divided between two conferences, the AFC and the NFC

The American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) make up the National Football League (NFL). Don’t worry, those are the only acronyms you’ll need to know. Each conference is broken down into four divisions; North, East, South, and West. The divisions are based on geographic location. There are differences between the AFC and NFC, but for the purposes of learning football basics, you don’t need to know that.

NFL games consist of four quarters and one half time

Each NFL is game is made up of four quarters. Each quarter is 15 minutes of total play (but don’t expect the game to be over in an hour). There is also a 12-minute halftime, which most people use to grab another beer or refill their appetizer plate.

Each team can only have 11 players on the field at one time

The offense and defense are both made up of 11 players. There are many different positions in the sport, and they get a little more in depth than the ones below, but here are a few important ones to know:

Quarterback: The quarterback is considered the leader of the team. He calls plays (along with the coach), receives the ball from the center, and puts the play into action.
Center: This is the player who passes (or “snaps”) the ball to the quarterback to start a play.
Running back: The running back is the player who usually receives a handoff from the quarterback during a rushing play. Running backs might also catch a pass or block.
Receiver: When the quarterback wants to make a pass, he looks for the receiver. The receiver then takes the ball and attempts to outrun any defenders while heading for the end zone.

Cornerback: The cornerback is the player who tries to prevent a receiver from catching a pass. Cornerbacks also make tackles.
Safeties: The free safety and strong safety are the players who stand a little farther back from the rest of the defense and attempt to tackle anyone who gets through the rest of the defense.
Linebacker: The linebackers are another level of defense who can do anything from blocking a pass to making a hard hit or a strong tackle — their role depends on the offensive play.
Defensive tackle: The defensive tackle rushes the passer to try and prevent the ball from moving forward.
Defensive end: These are some of the biggest players on the defensive side. They’re on the outskirts of the defensive line and mostly tackle.

During a game, the offensive team has four downs, or four chances to move the ball forward at least 10 yards, before the ball goes to the other team

The offensive team has four “downs” in football, or basically four chances to move the ball 10 yards. If the team moves the ball 10 yards, those downs reset. Now, they have another four downs to get the ball another 10 yards. As long as the offensive team moves the ball forward at least 10 yards before getting a fourth down, they keep going (toward the end zone), and the downs keep resetting.

If the offensive team does not get the ball forward 10 yards within four downs, they lose possession of the ball.

There are four ways to score points in a game:

Touchdown, 6 points: A touchdown occurs when the ball successfully enters the end zone on a pass or rush.
Field goal, 3 points: A field goal occurs when the offensive team punts the ball between the two uprights, or the two parallel poles in the end zone.
Safety, 2 points: A safety occurs if there is a problem in the end zone, such as the offensive player with the ball being tackled or the offensive team committing a foul in their own end zone.
Extra point, 1 or 2 points: When a touchdown is scored, the offensive team has the opportunity to either punt the ball between the uprights for an extra point, or run the ball into the end zone (in the style of a touchdown) for an extra two points.

If a player does something wrong, a flag is thrown, and the team gets a penalty

If you’ve ever caught a few minutes of a football game and noticed the official throw a yellow flag onto the field, that means there is penalty. A player has committed a foul, and the team is punished. For example, if an offensive player commits a foul, the ball might be pushed back 10 yards. If a defensive player commits a foul, the ball might be pushed up 10 yards toward the end zone. The result of the penalty usually depends on its severity.

Wins help a team advance to the playoffs, and the final team from each conference competes for the Super Bowl

Hopefully you’ve heard of the Super Bowl. It’s that huge football game at the beginning of February when companies pay way too much money for a 30-second commercial and most people judge the game solely based on the halftime show. It’s also when the winning team from the AFC competes against the winning team from the NFC; it’s basically the championship game of the NFL, and the winner gets bragging rights for a year. Unless they beat Tom Brady — then its bragging rights for life.