Greg Fleming gets to grips with the rules of the game in anticipation of Super Bowl LIII

Sacrilege I know but during 2015's Rugby World Cup I fell in love with NFL football. A friend had alerted me to then new free-to-air TVNZ pop-up (Duke) channel that was showing live NFL (National Football League) games.

There were no free-to-air RWC games at that stage so in lieu of watching the All Blacks preliminary rounds I tuned into NFL - and I haven't looked back. (The ABs did ok without me right?).

Previously the only thing I knew about American football was what I'd gleaned watching box sets of Friday Night Lights. I had a rough idea of what a quarterback did (and wasn't one of them married to Giselle?), but the other positions and the actual rules of the game (why are they stopping all the time?) remained a mystery.

Duke has long since stopped live NFL coverage but a love of the game was set and after watching much of that 2015 season I started to appreciate the art of the game.


The Rules

Despite the seven officiating refs, a myriad of on-screen stats, flags, playbooks and in-helmet radios - boil it down and the game is a simple one - the ball-carrying team (the offence) get four chances to advance ten yards (just over nine metres).

The opposing team (the defence) has to stop them. The best thing one of these guys can do - short of intercepting a pass and running in a touchdown (a "pick and six" - worth 6-points which you don't actually have to touch down by the way) - is sack the quarterback. That is pummel him into the ground with ball in hand while he's behind the line of scrimmage. That's the blue line on your screen, the yellow one is the one they have to get to.

If the team with the ball doesn't get 10 yards in four attempts (or downs) they usually kick it as far as they can down field on the 4th down (think rugby league with helmets and forward passes).

If they do get the 10 it's first down again and the drive continues till they score a touchdown, get in range for a field goal, lose the ball or are stopped inside of the four by the defence.

Newbies note - each team is really two teams - an offence and a defence (let's not get into special teams just yet), which are sent on the field as required. Up to 46 players can dress out for a game and - unlike league or rugby - unlimited substitutions are allowed.

That said - only 11 players are allowed on the field at any one time - any more or less (between plays there's a constant shifting of personnel) and it's a penalty - signalled when a referee throws down a yellow flag onto the field. (Cooler than blowing a whistle, right?)

The head ref then explains the decision to the crowd and the yardage penalty imposed.
There are lots of other reasons for penalties (holding, pass interference, dangerous play), but it doesn't take too long to figure these out - Google them in the constant ad breaks (which the NFL schedule in to the games).


That's partly why games last over three hours (Super Bowls a lot longer) although the official playing time is just four 15 minute quarters (if it's tied at the end they go into overtime). Actual on-field action can be less than 15 minutes, perfect for the age where double screening rules. Check your tweets between plays.

And no sport is better suited to TV than the NFL.

The game is a gladiatorial spectacle, beautiful and brutal - and Super Bowl LIII which sees the New England Patriots take on the LA Rams - is shaping up to be a cracker - (the half time show less so - this year it's Maroon 5 and guests Travis Scott and Big Boi).

Super Bowl 53 - Patriots vs Rams Prediction

The Patriots have had a rocky season but improved when it counted - and no coach and quarterback has more Super Bowl experience than Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. That said the Rams under the eye of wunderkid coach Sean McVay and young quarterback Jared Goff (who was 7 years old when Brady won his first Super Bowl) have the skills and the talent to take this - especially if defensive players Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh can get to Brady.

My prediction - The Rams take it - 27-24

Super Bowl 53 kicks off at 12.30 pm NZ time on Monday. Watch on ESPN

NFL basics

- Touchdowns are worth 6, field goals 3, safeties (catching a defending player in their end-zone) 2. A touchdown conversion is worth 1.

- The essence of the game - a team gets four chances to get ten yards (just over 9-metres). The other team's job is to stop them.

- An NFL game consists of four 15-minute quarters. That said an NFL game - once ad breaks, half-time, timeouts and stoppages are taken into account runs more than three hours - the Super Bowl a lot longer.

- 11 players per team, but unlimited substitutions allowed and 46 players can dress out for a game.

- In the 19th century American Football began as a spin-off from rugby.