The National Football League is the great American spirit personified. A titanic sports competition worth billions of dollars, the NFL showcases the highest level of American Football in the world, and does so whilst evoking a strong sense of national pride. Over time, the NFL has come to aptly reflect America as a nation and become one of the sporting organisations the inhabitants of the States hold dearest – right alongside the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB).
The NFL has matured and evolved to the point of such sophistication and prestige that covering the competition in all its detail would be an almost impossible task. Instead, we’ve put together an NFL guide that covers all the essential things you need to know about the highest level of American Football: the history, the teams, the format, and the sporting event all Americans live and breathe for: the Super Bowl.
After being in existence for the best part of a century now, the NFL is, somewhat unsurprisingly, not the same competition it once was. Billions of dollars have changed hands from people working with and for the NFL since the competition first began. From its inaugural season in 1920 right up until the modern day, American Football has changed its appearance, format and approach – mostly for the better with the occasional misfire. You’ll get more of an insight into how the NFL has developed over time through the rest of the article, but you can read up specifically on the history of the competition here. (hyperlink to History of NFL article)
Currently, 32 different teams compete in the NFL. The competition is split into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference. To complicate (or simplify, depending on your viewpoint) matters further, each conference is split into four divisions: North, South, East and West. This specific league format will be explored in greater detail later in the article after we’ve talked a bit about the teams.
All of the clubs who currently compete in the NFL are listed below, accompanied by a short segment that explains a bit about them:
American Football Conference (AFC)
- Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens have experienced some success in recent years, winning the Super Bowl in 2000 and 2012.
- Cincinnati Bengals – Formed in 1967, the Bengals are yet to win a league championship or Super Bowl, but have won two AFC conference championships in the ‘80’s and appeared in the playoffs on 14 separate occasions.
- Cleveland Browns – The Browns most successful period was in fifties when they won three NFL Championships. They also won another in the sixties but are yet to win a Super Bowl.
- Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are another one of the NFL’s success stories, having won the Super Bowl six separate occasions (more than any other team). They are also regular competitors in the playoffs.
- Houston Texans – The new boys of the NFL, the Houston Texans were only formed as recently as 2002 and are still finding their feet as a franchise. They have appeared in the playoffs three times so far.
- Indianapolis Colts – The Colts originally played their games in Baltimore, but moved to Indianapolis in the mid-eighties. They’ve won the Super Bowl two separate occasions – in 1971 and 2007.
- Jacksonville Jaguars – Formed in 1995, the Jaguars have won two division championships and have qualified for the NFL playoffs on six separate occasions. They are, however, yet to appear in a Super Bowl.
- Tennessee Titans – A shape shifting side who have relocated on several occasions (they originally played in Texas as the Houston Oilers), the Tennessee Titans appear comfortable in their current skin. They even made the Super Bowl in 2000, but were defeated by the Rams 23-16.
- Buffalo Bills – They might not have won a Super Bowl yet, but the Buffalo Bills were regular playoff contenders during the nineties, and have made it to the NFL’s most prestigious stage on four separate occasions. They also won four consecutive conference championships from 1990-1993.
- Miami Dolphins – A big team with some proud history, Miami Dolphins can make the claim to have once had the very best team in the NFL history. In 1972, they achieved a perfect year, winning every single one of their matches including the Super Bowl. This is a feat that has yet to be emulated.
- New England Patriots – Another popular team well-known across both the United States and indeed the rest of the world, the New England Patriots can make the bold claim of having amassed the most points in a regular NFL season: 589 in 2007.
- New York Jets – The Jets are one of two New-York based sides to compete in the NFL. They have one Super Bowl appearance to their name and one championship, defeating the Colts 16-7 in 1969.
- Denver Broncos – The Broncos are no strangers to the Super Bowl, having appeared in the big game seven times and winning on three occasions in 1998, 1999 and 2016.
- Kansas City Chiefs – Originally the Dallas Texans, the Kansas City Chiefs reformed in 1963 and have since gone on to appear in the Super Bowl twice – winning it in 1970.
- Oakland Raiders – The team that a lot of Americans love to hate, the Oakland Raiders developed a reputation for being the bad guys of the NFL back in the eighties and it’s a tag they’ve never really managed to shake. Their menacing crest probably doesn’t help matters. Their last appearance at a Super Bowl was 2003.
- San Diego Chargers – The San Diego Charges are still looking for their first Super Bowl win, coming closest in 1995 when they were beaten on the big stage by the San Francisco 49ers.
National Football Conference (NFC)
- Chicago Bears – A team that has been part of the NFL since it first began (albeit under the name Chicago Staleys for the first season and the Decatur Staleys before that), the Bears have had a healthy clutch of players inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame and have won the Super Bowl once in 1986.
- Detroit Lions – Originally the Portsmouth Spartans, the Detroit Lions assumed their current colours and name in 1934. They are yet to appear in a Super Bowl, but have re-emerged as playoff contenders since 2014.
- Green Bay Packers – A famous American Football club with a glittering history, the Green Bay Packers are not just the longest surviving franchise in the NFL – they’re also the most successful. During their near one hundred years of existence, the Packers have picked up 13 NFL Championships and 4 Super Bowls – all without ever changing their name or relocating to a new region of the States.
- Minnesota Vikings – Despite four Super Bowl appearances in their fifty-six years of existence, the “Viks” are yet to get their hands on the NFL’s coveted prize.
- Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons were formed back in 1966 and won their first (and only) Super Bowl 33 years later – defeating the Broncos 34-19.
- Carolina Panthers – A younger team than most (formed in ’95), the Panthers were purring in 2004 after reaching the Super Bowl, only to be edged out by the New England Patriots 32-29.
- New Orleans Saints – The New Orleans Saints won their first Super Bowl on their first appearance, defeating the Indianapolis Colts 31-7 in Miami in 2010 to end decades of hurt.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Now owned by the Glazer family, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took three seasons to win their first game. Things have changed a bit since then, with the club having won a Super Bowl as recently as 2003.
- Dallas Cowboys – One of the most competitive and successful NFL teams in history, the Dallas Cowboys have won 5 Super Bowls in 8 attempts, and set a record for the highest number of consecutive “winning seasons” (achieving more wins than losses) from 1966 to 1985.
- New York Giants – The second side to play out of New York and the more successful of the two so far, the Giants have won 4 Super Bowls and also have a long list of NFL Hall of Fame inductees to boot.
- Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles are yet to win a Super Bowl but they do have 2 appearances to their credit so far. They also won 2 NFL Championships in the forties and 1 in the sixties.
- Washington Redskins – Originally the Boston Braves, the team became the Washington Redskins in 1937 and have gone on to 2 NFL Championships and 3 Super Bowls – the most recent of which was in 1991.
- Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals are yet to make their mark on the Super Bowl but have managed to make the playoffs on 10 separate occasions, even winning their conference in 2008.
- Los Angeles Rams – For a period, citizens of Los Angeles did not have a team to support in the NFL – despite their city being one of the biggest in America. In 2015, however, the St Louis Rams were relocated to LA – which is where the team was actually based prior to 1995.
- San Francisco 49ers – The San Fran 49ers are another NFL side with a sparkling history, having won the Super Bowl on 5 separate occasions.
- Seattle Seahawks – Formed in 1976, the Seahawks won their very first Super Bowl as recently as 2013, battering the Denver Broncos 43-8.
Famous Team Relocations
Imagine if your beloved sports team abruptly uprooted, relocated and changed its name. This is something that occurs a lot more frequently in American sports than it does in the rest of the world and has been going ever since the NFL first kicked off.
You’ve already read about some of the big rebrands when looking through the teams above, but here is a truncated list of the more famous moves throughout the years:
- Decatur Staleys relocated to Chicago in 1921. Name changed to Chicago Bears in 1922.
- Portsmouth Spartans relocated to Detroit and became the Detroit Lions in 1934.
- Boston Braves moved to Washington D.C. in 1937 and became the Washington Redskins.
- Oakland Raiders moved to Los Angeles for a period in 1982 before returning to Oakland in 1995.
- Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and became the Indianapolis Colts.
- St. Louis Cardinals moved over to Phoenix in 1988, changing their name to the Arizona Cardinals in 1994.
- Los Angeles Rams moved over to St Louis in 1995, before returning back to LA last year.
- The Tennessee Titans were originally the Houston Oilers. They moved to Memphis and Nashville before settling on their current colours and name.
Taking a look at the tables in the NFL can prove to be a headache-inducing experience for anyone who is a little unfamiliar with the sport of American Football. Thankfully, the league structure of the NFL isn’t quite as complex as it appears on paper. Here it is broken down in layman’s terms.
Every team in the competition plays 16 regular games. This lasts 17 weeks, as every team also has a bye week (a week where they play no match).
Every team plays the other three teams in their division home and away. This is the same every year. So, for example, the Baltimore Ravens play the Browns, the Bengals and the Steelers home and away every year.
Now, here’s where people tend to get a bit stuck.
Along with playing every team in their division, all NFL teams also play 4 teams from another division in their conference. The confusing bit is that this division changes every year, on a rotation basis. Of these 4 matches, 2 are played at home and 2 are played away.
Every NFL team also plays 4 teams from a division in the other conference. Again, this division changes every year on a rotation basis. Of these 4 matches, 2 are played at home and 2 are played away.
Lastly, each NFL team also plays 2 other teams (in the same conference as them) that finished in the same division position as them last season.
When the regular season ends, the top 6 sides from each conference automatically qualify for the playoffs. Remember, there are 4 divisions in each conference. Every team who’s won their division automatically qualifies for the playoffs. The remaining two spaces in the playoffs are won by “Wildcard” teams. These teams are the sides with the best records in their conference (bar the division winners).
Ok, so that’s how a team qualifies for a playoff place. Now it’s time to look at how the playoff fixtures work:
- The 2 division winners with the best winning records skip Round 1.
- The other 2 division winners play the Wildcard teams in Round 1.
- Round 2 of the Playoffs is known as the Divisional Playoff games. In these matches, the lowest-rated winner from Round 1 plays the highest-rated division winner. The other winner from Round 1 plays the division winner with the second-best record. These games are played at the home grounds of the division winners.
- Round 3 is known as the Conference Championship matches. Again, home advantage is granted to whichever team performed better throughout the regular season.
- The winner of one conference plays the winner of the other in a game known as the Super Bowl, the match that determines the winner of the NFL.
That’s it – all the essential information about the NFL that you could ever need to know. When the new season kicks off, you’ll be ready to get involved right from Game 1.