NFL Rules

Understanding the basic rules of football is a great first step in preparing an NFL betting strategy. These are the fundamentals that are later needed for analysis and bet selection. Plus, knowing the rules makes watching any sport more enjoyable.

The rules for the NFL are very similar to those of collegiate football. Scoring, field dimensions and most importantly, the characteristics of winning teams are all the same.  Penalties and safe play rules are also very similar. 

The rules for the game of football, and how well the teams perform within the rules framework, are all part of game day outcomes. It is a predictable performance that helps you develop a betting edge.

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Basic NFL Rules

The Field of Play

The field of play is rectangular shaped and is 100 yards long from goal line to goal line, with an end zone at each end of 10 yards in length. The width of the field is 53.3 yards. There are goalposts at each backline of the endzone.  

Each team has 11 players on the field at any time during play. 

The basic scoring principle is to move the football over the opposition’s goal line. One unit of 11 is defending their goal line (on defense). The other team is trying to cross the opponent's goal line and score (on offense). 

Each side has a squad of offensive and defensive players along with a third squad that is primarily involved with kicking the ball to or receiving a kick from the other team. This third group is known as the special unit. Special units include the unique services of a punter and field goal kicker, as examples.

Run or Pass

To move the ball towards the goal line, the offensive unit can either run with the ball or complete a forward pass, from one player to another. A legal forward pass is when the ball is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage to another player in a forward direction towards the goal. An eligible teammate must catch the ball before it hits the ground. 

The line of scrimmage is the term for the starting line on the field. It is where the ball is placed and is the virtual line across the field where the offense lines up against the defense to try to move the ball. 

Four Tries to Move Ten Yards

The dimensions of a football field are measured in yards with a field length of 100-yards from the end zone to other end zone. A scoring opportunity can come on any play, but most often the team with the ball strives to move down the field in a series of tries. These tries are known as downs - 1st, 2nd, and so on.  

The side with possession of the ball has 4 downs or tries to score or move the ball 10 yards. 

When a team moves the ball from the initial line of scrimmage to a distance of ten yards or more towards the goal, they are given another set of downs. 

When they fail to move ten yards in four tries, the other team goes on offense and tries to do the same. Most often, when failing after three tries, the special unit is called in to punt. 

A punt refers to kicking the ball downfield as far as possible to increase the distance the opposition needs to move the ball toward the goal.

The ability of a team to consistently move the ball towards the goal line by

achieving successive first downs has the advantage to win the game. Not only does this consistent progress result in more scoring opportunities; it also keeps the opponent’s offense off the field, limiting their scoring opportunities.


The side with the highest score wins the game and it is the score that determines betting results. Whether you make a point spread bet, money line bet or wager on the game’s combined points total, the scoreboard is everything.

When the offensive runs or receives a pass beyond the opponent’s goal line, this is called a “touchdown” and is worth six points. Touchdowns come with a potential for a single extra point with a successful kick. Or in some situations, a team can try for a less certain 2-point attempt by running or passing the ball over the goal line.

The coaching decision to “go for 2”, can often come up late, as the side trailing in score looks to close the gap. Field goals are worth 3 points and often, the critical difference in close games is a successful field goal kick.

A less common scoring opportunity is a “safety”. Safety is when a player is tackled in their opponent’s end zone, and results in 2 points for the opponent. It is sort of a touchdown in reverse, but rarely has any impact on your betting strategy.

The main objective is to score a touchdown and is the highest point award. After scoring a touchdown, the scoring side is given the opportunity for an “extra point or points”. A single extra point is scored when the ball is kicked through the goal-posts on the backline of the endzone. It is possible for a unit to run a play - pass or run the ball across the goal line and receive two extra points.

Your betting strategy is to look at a team’s scoring strength and defensive ability when analyzing matchups.


Rule violations result in penalties and are a key aspect of a football rules discussion.  The penalties are to enforce the rules of the game and take the form of assessed yardage, not points. 

Penalties against the defense can result in a first down for the offense. When the offensive side commits a rule violation, penalty yards often stall drives. Penalties can derail-scoring drives or shorten the distance to the goal.

Rules to protect players from injuries also carry significant penalties. 

Penalties are mistakes that can change momentum and a game’s final score. Your football betting rule should be to always carefully analyze how each side performs with respect to the rules of the game and the impact of penalties.  

NFL Game Time Structure

The game duration is 60-minutes of playing time, with four quarters of 15 minutes each. However, you need to set aside three hours to watch an entire game from opening kick-off to the final whistle. The playing time, or “game clock “only runs for continuous play on the field. 

The game clock stops when:

  • A player carries the ball out of bounds
  • There is an incomplete pass
  • There is penalty 
  • A team uses one of their allotted time outs. 

Game clock management is a very important aspect of the game since the game time available can determine the number of remaining scoring attempts. 

NFL Overtime Rules 

The basic rules for NFL playoff games are the same as those that apply to regular-season overtime situations. They differ in the fact that a playoff game must have a winner. The Super Bowl must conclude with a clearly defined champion. 

A solid understanding of the NFL overtime rules is important to sports bettors and the millions simply watching the big game.

Regular Season Overtime Rules

A regular-season NFL game that ends in a tie after 60 minutes of regulation game time, will go into a single overtime period of 15 minutes.  There will be a short 2-minute intermission between the end of regulation time and a coin flip to determine which side will receive the ball for the start of the overtime period.

The current overtime rules state the game is over, at any point during the overtime period, when either team scores a touchdown. If the receiving side scores a field goal, the game is not over. The opposing team will then be given a chance to score a field goal to continue overtime play or score a touchdown and end the game with a win. If the team to receive the ball first scores a field goal, and the opposition fails to score on their possession, the game is over.

If both teams score field goals on their opening possession - or if both teams fail to score field goals - the game continues until the next score. Once both sides have had a single opportunity to score, the game goes to “sudden death” rules, meaning the next score wins the game.

If at the end of the single overtime, neither team scores - or both teams score only a field goal on their first possession - then the game ends in a tie. 

In the NFL regular season, there can be ties, but only after each side has had an opportunity to win during an overtime period.

Another possibility is if the side receiving the ball to start the overtime period is tackled in their own end-zone (a safety), the game is over and the opposing team wins. This is yet to happen in the NFL, but it is an interesting possibility.

Overtime Rules for the NFL Playoffs

The same overtime rules for scoring and ending the overtime period apply to NFL playoff games. The difference is the game must have a winner and this means the possibility of multiple overtime periods. 

If there is no winner using the regular-season overtime rules described above, then there will be successive overtime periods, until a winner emerges.

Sports Betting Notes for NFL Overtimes

Under overtime rules, a touchdown ends the game and there is no extra-point try. 

Therefore, if you took the favorite at 6.5 points, there is no overtime hope for your bet.  

Also, point total bets where you take the under, are at risk in overtime. It is dependent on the points total at the end of the game, not regulation time. 

You should always look at the reliability of a team’s field goal kicker in any game. This is important in any close game or any potential overtime situation. The overtime rules are an important aspect of the NFL.

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6 February 2020
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