American football (not to be confused with “football” as understood in the rest of the world, which Americans call “soccer”) is a rough, demanding game that requires special protective equipment for the players. American football owes its origins to both soccer and rugby, but has, since the nineteenth century, evolved into a quintessentially American game.
Professional football is an extremely popular spectator sport during the autumn and early winter seasons. Football is also quite prominent on high school and college levels all over the United States. With some exceptions, professional football games take place on Sundays, college football games on Saturdays, and high school football games on Fridays. Given the physical demands of the game and the risk of injury, players play no more than once a week.
Football games have a strict time limit. Professional and college games consist of four 15-minute quarters, while high school games commonly last four 12-minute quarters. Numerous events can cause the timing to stop and start again, bringing the game, with a half-time break, to a length of several hours. The stop-start nature of football gives broadcasters many opportunities to insert commercial messages, expert play analysis, and video replays without interrupting coverage of the action.
Football is a game of specialties. Teams have dedicated units for offense, defense, and special situations such as kickoffs and returns. Rules are complex, and strategies, such as the use of coordinated blocking, are difficult to understand. To the unschooled outsider, the game seems to involve a series of violent and energetic encounters. Players collide, grapple with each other, and then collapse into a pile. The referee blows a whistle, the clock stops, the players get up, and the next incomprehensible play occurs. The game, of course, is so much more. It is a fine combination of quick, aggressive combat with intelligent and subtle strategic and tactical action.
On the professional level, the world of American football runs largely around the teams of the National Football League (NFL). All these teams are located in the United States. Canada has its own football league with slightly different rules and a different-sized field. Unlike baseball, which has an elaborate system of lower-level (“minor”) leagues, American football relies on the American college football system for the grooming and production of players. After a short series of exhibition games in late summer, the NFL season runs sixteen weeks from September to year’s end, with a series of elimination playoffs that culminate in the country’s most viewed sporting event, the annual “Super Bowl.” The 32 NFL teams encompass the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). Each conference has four divisions:
- NFC East: New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys
- NFC North: Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions
- NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers
- NFC: West: St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers
- AFC East: New York Jets, New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins
- AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
- AFC South: Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts
- AFC: West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders
American college football teams are often members of a number of “conferences” which play seasons that culminate in what are termed “bowl” games. The participating teams qualify for the bowl games based on a rather complex point and voting system rather than the post-season elimination games common in most other sports. The top bowl games are major media events. Most prominent among these are the games of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) of the National College Athletic Association (NCAA). These include the Rose Bowl, held with much pageantry and a parade in Pasadena, California, the Orange Bowl, held in Miami, Florida, the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Fiesta Bowl of Glendale, Arizona, plus the BCS Championship Game, which has various locations. Beyond this series, about thirty further bowl games take place, giving hundreds of schools with football programs a chance for glory.
High school football is popular throughout the United States. High school teams commonly compete for state championships. In many small cities, cross-town rivalries bring fans and passions to the forefront. Just as professional teams recruit players from the college system, colleges and their supporters, often alumni, recruit players from among the best high school players. The dream is to win a “football scholarship” to a college or university.
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