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On any given Sunday from September 7 until February 1, 2015, you will not need to send a search party to find your American mates. They will be in front of their television sets, watching as many NFL games as they can simultaneously.

American football has far surpassed baseball as the nation’s pastime, and the sport seems to be winning fans in Europe as well. The NFL will be playing three very un-friendly regular contests in London this season. And though the rules may seem complicated, the DNA of the sport is quite simple — take the other team’s will to live away by driving them off the field repeatedly. Here’s what you need to know about American football.

What genius invented this game? 

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Organised American football traces its roots back to 1876, when barbarians from Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton created the Intercollegiate Football Association, writing down a uniform set of rules for a sport that wasn’t quite rugby. In 1905, when 19 players died in gridiron combat, then-President Theodore Roosevelt gathered members of Harvard, Princeton and Yale and told them to clean up the violence. From there, the forward pass became more of a conventional weapon in the game.

 

How does the game work?

It’s the most American of sports: capture all of the real estate and drive your opponent off the field and you are rewarded with a touchdown or six points. Your kicker gets to attempt an extra point to rub it in. Each team fields 11 players per side. The ball is placed on what is called the “line of scrimmage” to start play. The offensive team has four plays to move the ball 10 yards for a “first down.” (Sorry metric system fans! No metres here.) Traditionally, if a team cannot gain the 10 yards in three plays, they will “punt” the ball down the field to the other team in an attempt to secure a better field position.

If a team is within striking distance but doesn’t have a first down to continue, they can kick the ball through the golden uprights for a field goal, which is worth three points. The game consists of four 15-minute quarters. If it is tied in regulation, the game goes to an overtime period where both teams get at least one chance to score.

 

What should I say during a game?

Chances are if you blurt out any military terminology, it will sound as if it applies to football. Offenses like to use their “ground game” to diminish their opponents’ will. If the defense – with an S – tries to fortify their “front line” to stop the run, expect the quarterback to loft a few “bombs” down the field to his receivers to soften up the defense. To combat this, the defense will “blitz” the quarterback, sending as many defenders as they can to rush the thrower and “sack” him. Got that, soldier?

 

Is it like soccer?

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No. If a player is lying on the field holding his leg, chances are good that his ACL is no longer attached to his bones. What gets you a red card in the Premier League may earn you a 10-15 yard penalty for your team – so there’s room for you, Luis Suarez.  Recurring penalties will not even earn you an ejection unless your violation is so severe that the police may be called.

And the gameplay is not continuous at all. It’s a series of ten-second battles that ensure maximum violence for everyone watching and maximum commercials for sponsors. There’s no relegation here. If you’re at the bottom of the heap, just keep losing and you’ll be rewarded with a high draft pick – first choice of next year’s players – to secure one of the best college football players available! Read it and weep, Norwich City.

 

Who should I root for?

Football fans love winners, so feel free to root for whomever is in first place. This year has seen an abundance of Seattle Seahawks jerseys after their Super Bowl victory. But perhaps the most popular jersey in America is that of Cleveland Browns’ rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, aka Johnny Football.

Manziel, a recent graduate of Texas A&M who was accused of violating collegiate football rules by charging money for his autograph, has embraced his capitalist roots by rubbing his thumbs and forefingers together for everyone to see as though he is making it rain dollars. If Manziel achieves any modicum of success in the sport as a pro, he may earn his own national holiday.

 

We have an image to protect here

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Scientific studies have begun to pile up that show athletes who suffer repeated brain trauma develop a degenerative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.  To keep players safer (and to prevent future lawsuits), the NFL has cracked down on defensive players who use their helmets as a battering ram on other players’ helmets.

As the league took in over $6 billion last year, it has sought to punish players for off-field indiscretions that can tarnish the league’s image. Examples of recent suspensions: Ray Rice (pictured) of the Baltimore Ravens was suspended for two games without pay when video footage showed him dragging his knocked-unconscious girlfriend from an elevator. Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts was suspended for four games without pay for taking Clomid, an unapproved fertility drug that is on the league’s banned substance list. And star wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for an entire season without pay for failing a marijuana test, his third failed drug test as a pro.  Make sense? Doesn’t make sense to us either. But the NFL can do whatever it wants.

 

The big finale

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The Super Bowl was created in 1967, when the NFL merged with its rival, the American Football League. The game was a showdown of the winner from both leagues. Since the merger, those leagues have now morphed into what is known as “conferences”, with the winner of the National Football Conference meeting the winner of the American Football Conference to determine supremacy.

Each game was given a roman numeral, which was cute when it was Super Bowl I, but a bit more unwieldy now that we’ve reached Super Bowl XLIX. The game itself is the most watched television event of the year in the United States. Last year’s game attracted a record 112.2 million viewers. The day has become such a national event that the NFL has begun to ask musical acts to pay them for the privilege of performing at its halftime show. Ante up, Katy Perry!

Michael Dolan

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