With Super Bowl XLIX quickly approaching, football fans, both diehard and more secular, will tune in to watch the New England Patriots of the AFC take on the defending champion Seattle Seahawks of the NFC.

More than 100 million people across the country are expected to match the biggest game of the year, however, not every fan will be on the same curve in terms of the NFL rules and how football is generally played.

So below are some basic tenets of football and the NFL. Football is a complicated game, so we couldn't cover everything, but this simple cheat sheet should help you out. (Note: if you know the mathematical formula for passer ratings, you should probably stop reading because this report is not for you.)


Delay of Game (5 yards)

The offense has 40 seconds to run a play and if they fail to do so a delay of game penalty is called. It’s different after timeouts and the start of quarters, when teams have 25 seconds to get a play off.

Face Mask (Automatic first down, or 5 yards or 15 yards)

All NFL players obviously wear helmets, and each comes with a face mask. No player is allowed to grab another’s face mask at any time.

False Start (5 yards)

Similar to offsides, a false start is when a player(s) jumps off the line too early or intentionally tries to get an opposing player to jump early.

Holding (Automatic first down, or 5 yards or 10 yards)

A yellow flag is thrown by a referee for all penalties, including holding, which is called when an offensive or defensive player deliberately grabs or retains a player illegally in order to prolong or stop a play.

Illegal Contact (5, 10 or more yards)

A grey area in terms of the rules, it’s a rule that’s become far stricter this season. It can be similar to pass interference, roughing the passer or hands to the face.

Illegal Hands to the Face (5, 10 or more yards)

Like a face mask penalty, offensive and defensive players can’t hit a player in the face during a play like shoving or punching.

Offsides (Automatic first down and or 5 yards)

At the line of scrimmage, no player is allowed to pass the invisible line between the two teams until the ball is snapped. Offsides is called when any player, offensive or defensive, crosses that line too early

Pass Interference (both offense and defense)

A common call, referees will call pass interference when a receiver or defensive player tries to stop or catch a pass with contact in the air or on the ground. For instance a receiver can’t push a defensive player off of him as the ball flies toward him, and vice versa.

Offensive pass interference will usually result in a 10-yard penalty. Defensive pass interference will result in spotting the ball where the penalty occurred.

Roughing the Passer (15 yards)

A controversial penalty in today’s NFL, quarterbacks cannot be hit once they have released the ball. Roughing the passer is called when a defensive player hits a quarterback when he’s already passed the ball, but sometimes it can be within less than a second of a pass.

Unnecessary Roughness (15 yards and possible disqualification)

An offensive or defensive player can be flagged for unnecessary roughness when they hit or tackle a player after a play has been whistled dead or for pushing a player into the sidelines when they are clearly on the their way out of bounds. There can be lots of variation, but most of the times when a player uses excessive or unsportsmanlike force.

Challenges and Replays

Instead of yellow flags, coaches throw red flags in order to challenge a play. Referees will then review a replay of the play in question, like whether a player caught a ball or if they fumbled or were down by contact. Lots of plays can be reviewed, but scoring plays are automatically reviewed by the league.


Eligible Receivers

There are 11 players on an offense. Of the offensive players on the line of scrimmage, only the two players on the ends of the line of scrimmage are allowed to catch a pass. The remaining players are in the backfield, and are also allowed to catch a pass. Ineligible receivers usually consist of the center, guards, and offensive tackles.

Fair catch

A kick returner or punt returner can signal a fair catch on kick offs or punts, which signals he won’t run with the ball and the offense will start with the ball wherever he catches it. Opposing players are not allowed to make contact with the player on a fair catch.

Forward Pass

A player is not allowed to throw the ball forward after he has gone north of the line of scrimmage.


A receiver must have full control of the ball and both feet inbounds for the catch to be legal. This includes a touchdown.


Field goals

A field goal always counts for 3 points and can be taken from anywhere on the field. Typically a team hopes to avoid taking a field goal longer than 50 yards away, but if its late in the game and they are down by two points they will go for the win with a field goal.

Extra point

After scoring a touchdown, a team has the option of kicking the ball through the yellow field goal uprights for one additional point.


If a defense pushes an opposing team back and tackles the offensive player with the ball inside the end zone, than a safety is awarded with two points and possession of the ball. A safety is also called when a quarterback steps out of bounds in the end zone.


Getting the ball from one end of the field to another will get a team 6 points.

Two-point conversion

Instead of kicking the extra point a team can “go for two.” They have one play to again get the ball inside the end zone for two points. More often than not a team will kick the extra point, but they are down by a lot of points they go for two.


2-minute warning

Before the end of each half, play stops at the 2-minute mark, or the two-minute warning. Sometimes it’s under two minutes if a team ran a play just before.

40-second play clock

An offense gets 40 seconds to run a play, but at the start of quarters or after time outs its 25 seconds.

60 minute game

Every NFL game is 60 minutes long, with 15-minute quarters.

Clock stops on incompletions and injuries

If a team throws a pass but isn’t completed the play clock stops. If caught, the clock keeps going until a player goes out of bounds. On running plays the clock keeps going unless a player is tackled or runs out of bounds. If a player is injured, officials will stop the game.


Following a coin toss, a 15-minute period is played until a winner is declared. A playoff game, which includes the Super Bowl, cannot end in a tie.

Time outs (3 per team)

Each team is given three time outs per half in order to stop the clock and discuss a play depending on the situation in the game.


Four downs per team

Once a team gains possession, the offense at first gets four plays, or downs, to move the ball 10 yards. If they can’t the ball is given to the opposing team.


When a player carrying the ball loses possession it is referred to as a "fumble."


The defense can gain possession of the ball by catching a ball thrown by the offense.

Onside kicks

Instead of a regular kick-off, when the kicking team tries to pin the receiving team far down field and away from the end zone, the defense will kick the ball off just 10 yards and try to regain possession. Once the ball goes 10 yards and the receiving team touches it, the kicking team can try to gain possession. This play is usually done as a surprise or in desperation by the kicking team to get the ball back immediately.


If an offense fails to gain 10 yards on their first three downs, on the fourth down they will give up possession by punting, or kicking, the ball down field.


On punts or kickoffs, a returner can catch the punt or kickoff in the endzone and kneel to signal a touchback rather than running to gain yardage. The ball is then placed at the 20 yard line where the offense starts with four downs.