What are the rules of NFL? An easy guide to touchdowns, quarterbacks and first downs

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IF you sit down and watch any sport without having had the rules explained to you, it’s going to be difficult to follow – at least at first.

None more so than American football, with weird and wonderful rules and distinctive language that sounds like gobbledygook to the uninitiated listener.

Since 2015 and their Super Bowl triumph, Denver haven't made the playoffs
The National Football League has a number of weird and wonderful rules and phrases
Getty Images – Getty

Here, we will try and breakdown those rules and terms so even a child could understand the bone-crunching National Football League.

You can watch the NFL playoffs on Now TV with prices starting at £6.99 for a Sports Pass. Or you can catch all the action on NFL Gamepass.


Where to start…

The whole point of the game, like every team sport, is to beat your opponent by scoring more points.

NFL squads are massive (more on that later) but each team is only allowed 11 players on the field at once.

The attacking team (offence) tries to score against the defending team (defence) – if the defending team stops the attacking team from scoring, then they get a turn in possession of the ball to try and score


  • Down – a single attempt to move the ball up the field. Teams get four attempts to move the ball 10 yards or they have to surrender it to the opponent
  • Drive – a series of plays as an offence attempts to move the ball forwards
  • End zone – a 10-yard scoring area at either end of the field. Players can run the ball into, or catch inside, the endzone for six points
  • Extra point – the kicker has a chance to add another point after a touchdown is scored by kicking through the post
  • Field goal – a long-range attempt by the kicker to add three points, must sail through the posts
  • Fumble – when a player loses possession of the ball, if the defence recovers, possession is turned over
  • Incompletion – when a pass is either dropped, missed or caught out of bounds. The ball goes back to the previous spot
  • Interception – when a pass is caught by a defender, resulting in a turnover of possession
  • Kick off – a kick to get the ball in play. Happens at the start of the game, after half-time and after each touchdown
  • Line of scrimmage – an imaginary line where the ball is spotted. Offensive and defensive players cannot cross the line until the ball is in play
  • Punt – usually happens on fourth down, a specialist punter will kick the ball far downfield so as not to give up good field position
  • Red zone – an area within 20 yards of the endzone
  • Rushing – an attempt to run the ball, rather than pass
  • Sack – when the defence tackles the quarterback, usually resulting in a loss of yards from the line of scrimmage
  • Safety – a two-point score when the defence tackles an offensive player in his own endzone
  • Snap – the action when the ball is brought into play – it can go to the quarterback, punt or the holder on a kick attempt
  • Touchdown – a six-point score. The ball does not have to be touched on the ground

Teams have four 15 minute quarters to score against the other.

If the score is level at the end of regulation, the game will go into a 15-minute overtime period.


The pitch is standardised at 100 yards (91.44m) long and 53 yards (48.3m) wide, with an additional 10 yards at each end.

Those bits are the important parts of the field – the end zones.

If the ball ends up in there, the team in possession of the ball scores.

White markers are visible on the field at one-yard markers to help players, officials and fans see where the ball is.

There are two upright posts at either end where teams can kick through to score points.

The Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in the US calendar
The field is 100 yards long, 53 yards wide and has 10 yard long endzones – where you score points
Getty Images – Getty


You can watch the NFL playoffs on Sky this year as they’ll be broadcasting all the games live. You can become a subscriber here.

If you don’t want to sign up for Sky, you can watch the playoffs on NowTV with their Sky Sports pass starting from £6.99.

You can also sign up for NFL Game Pass’ playoff subscription which will let you watch all the games, including the Super Bowl, live and on demand


Now this is where it starts to get a bit tricky, stay with me as possession of the ball is key.

When a team has the ball, they have four attempts to move it 10 yards forward.

These are called downs.

The team must move the ball at least 10 yards within those four attempts to get a new set of downs (attempts) and continue progressing towards the endzone.

If they do not progress up the field, they will turn the ball over back to their opponents.

The offence has only 40 seconds on each down to try and move the ball forward.

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Teams have four attempts to progress the ball 10 yards forward – they can do that by passing or running


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They will be penalised for delaying the game if they do not make an attempt to move the ball.

Offensive teams will usually run a set action – from a complex book that contains dozens of them – to try and outwit the defence.

The action is known as running a play.

The attacking team attempts to move down the field by running plays while the defence tries to stop them by running count-plays of their own.

Forward progress stops when a player is tackled – he must have a knee on the floor for the play to be ruled dead – or he is pushed out of bounds.

Devonta Freeman rushes in Atlanta's first touchdown of the game
If a team does not progress the ball 10 yards in four attempts they have to give it back to their opponent
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If a team reaches their fourth down and does not believe they will get beyond the 10-yard marker, they can elect to kick it back to their opponent – known as a punt – to try and put them out of dangerous field position.

A defence can also win back possession via an interception (when a defensive player catches a throw) or via fumble (when a player in possession drops the ball or has it knocked out of his hand by a defender).

If a defensive team wins possession via interception or fumble, their offence will take over from that spot on the field.


At the start of the game, teams toss a coin for possession.

The winners of the toss can elect to receive the ball or kick it away – the team that kicked at the start of the first quarter will receive it at the start of the third, after half-time.

After the ball is kicked a specialist player on the receiving team (a kick returner) will decide whether to spot the ball where he catches it, or attempt to run it towards his opponents’ endzone.

Wherever he is tackled, the offence will take over from that spot.

If he is not tackled, he will run it back for a score.


Time is an extremely important part of the strategy of an NFL game.

The clock will continue to run whenever a play moves the ball – for example if a pass is caught or a player runs the ball forward.

It stops if a player runs the ball out of bounds, a pass is not caught, or a penalty is called by an official.

The clock also stops on the two minute mark before the end of the second and fourth quarters and after points are scored.



You’ve heard the term, but don’t necessarily know what it means.

Jonathan Stewart scored three touchdowns for Carolina in their win over Minnesota
Jonathan Stewart dives in for a touchdown – worth six points
Getty Images – Getty

First of all, no, a player doesn’t actually have to touch the ball down on the ground to score.

A player can run the ball in or catch a pass to score a touchdown.

If a player is running into the end zone only the ball has to cross the line (known as breaking the plane) to score.

If the ball is being caught after a pass, both feet must touch the ground with the ball in control from the receiver.

A touchdown is worth six points, but there are a number of other ways to score.

After a touchdown is scored, the offensive team will have the chance to score more points.

LeSean McCoy celebrates one of two touchdowns on Sunday
LeSean McCoy celebrates one of two touchdowns on Sunday
AP:Associated Press

They will usually elect to kick an extra point through the posts.

However, on some occasions, teams can run another play – if the ball ends up in the endzone it is worth two points.

If an offensive team doesn’t think they will score a touchdown, they may still be close enough to kick a field goal.

A specialist kicker comes on the field and attempts to kick the ball through the posts – that’s worth three points.

Extra points and field goals can be blocked and returned for scores at the other end.

Defensive teams can also score touchdowns.

If they intercept a pass or recover a fumble and take it into the endzone, they will score six points.

Finally, if a defensive team tackles the offensive team in their own endzone they will score a safety – not only is that worth two points but the defensive team wins back possession of the ball.

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A specialist kicker can kick through the posts for three points – they also kick for an extra point after a touchdown is scored


A roster (squad) of players is usually 53 active players.

The players are divided into three sections – offence, defence, special teams – and rarely cross over.

Within those sections are positional groups which make players highly specialised.

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Quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger are the most important players – and biggest stars – in the NFL

The most important position in the sport is the quarterback.

Not only is he the player that passes the ball forward, he is usually the one who reads out the plays to the rest of the offence, acting like a coach on the field.

Quarterbacks are the stars of the league and a good one is the biggest step in creating a good team.

Also on offence are the offensive line – the beefy players whose job is to protect the quarterback from defenders.

There are two tackles, who line up on the outside, two inside guards and a centre – he’s the one who snaps the ball to the quarterback to get the play started.

Then come the skill positions: running backs, who are handed the ball to run but are also able to catch, and receivers, who catch passes from the quarterback.

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Defensive lineman attack the quarterback in the hopes of forcing a sack

Finally, there are tight ends – a hybrid between an offensive lineman and receiver – and some teams also employ a full back – an offensive lineman-running back hybrid.

On defence, there is the defensive line, whose job is to get past the offensive line and attack the quarterback.

Linebackers are the most versatile defenders, rushing the quarterback, stopping the run, or defending receivers in coverage depending on the play.

Cornerbacks usually cover receivers, while safetys are just that – the last line of defence.

Special teams is the finally section and although it may seem like an unimportant part of the game, it is crucial.

A receiver and a defensive back battle for the ball when it is thrown in the air
PA:Press Association

Kickers kick field goals and extra points, punters boot the ball away to ensure good field position.

There is also a long snapper who throws the ball through his legs to the placeholder when the kicker lines up for a field goal.

Kick and punt returners are usually specifically on the roster for that part of the game, although plenty are regular starters on the offence or defence.

A team is usually run by a head coach who oversees the whole operation – often taking over either the offence or defence.

He will then have an offensive and defensive co-ordinators who select the plays (with the approval of the coach).


This is where American football turns into a violent chess match.

Coaches can pick from thousands of formations and plays to try and outwit their opponent.

Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots throws the flag to challenge an official's call in the second half against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium
Head coach Bill Belichick oversees his teams strategy and play-calling

On offence there has to be at least five linemen and a quarterback on the field, but after that coaches are free to have in whatever they want, whether it be a running back, one, two or three receivers and so on.

The quarterback can line up either under centre (right next to the centre), in the pistol (four yards back), or in the shotgun (seven yards back) to snap the ball.

Each has advantages and disadvantages and could give a clue as to what play will be run.

On the other side, defences usually line up with at least three linemen for fear of giving the quarterback too much time.

They will then use a variation of linebackers and defensive backs depending on what they are trying to achieve.

The aim of the game is to outsmart your opponent, move down the field and score a touchdown.

How that happens is why you watch.


There are 32 teams in the NFL.

They are split up into two conferences of 16 teams each – the AFC and NFC.

Within the two conferences there are four divisions of four teams, North, East, South and West.

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The ultimate prize in the NFL is the Super Bowl – currently held by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots
Getty Images

There are 16 games in the regular season and one bye week.

Teams play the other three teams in their division home and away.

The remaining 10 fixtures are based on a strict algorithm – a team will play four teams from another AFC division once and another four from another NFC division once.

These rotate.

The remaining two final games are based on inter-conference standings from the year before.

Six teams from each conference qualify for the play-offs, a single elimination tournament.

The four division winners get an automatic berth, with the final two ‘Wild Card’ spots going to the next two teams with the best record in the conference.

The best two teams in each conference earn a bye through the first round and secure home field advantage in the next.

Teams then battle through the rounds before the two unbeaten teams meet in the Super Bowl.

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