A Football Rookie’s Guide to Understanding Super Bowl LVIII

If you aren’t from the United States or you don’t follow American football too closely, you might find yourself wondering why people are making such a big deal about the upcoming Super Bowl. After all, there are months of National Football League (NFL) games throughout the year — what makes this one game so special? The answer to that question, along with a beginner’s guide to understanding the Super Bowl, can be found in this article. Read on to learn more!

What is the Super Bowl?

Let’s start with the basics. The Super Bowl is a championship matchup between the two top NFL teams in their respective conferences, the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). Each division has sixteen teams, of which seven teams from each division will make it into the NFL playoffs. Teams are eliminated each week until only two remain, which determines the matchup for the Super Bowl game.

In recent years, the Super Bowl has expanded to become much more than “just” a football game, despite the high risk of injuries in the sport. Advertisers spend countless hours crafting witty, clever, and creative commercials to capture new customers. Performers fight tooth and nail to win the right to perform in the Super Bowl halftime show. Celebrities and brands work to secure representation at the game to enhance their visibility. In short, the Super Bowl has become as much a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. as it is a game between two exceptionally talented football teams. 

Who’s Playing in Super Bowl LVIII?

This year’s Super Bowl matchup will go down on February 11th, 2024 at 6:30 p.m. ET. For those watching on the West Coast, that translates to 3:30 p.m. PST. The Super Bowl will be played at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas — a venue that’s been jokingly nicknamed the “Death Star” by locals and fans of the Las Vegas Raiders. Allegiant Stadium is one of the newest NFL stadiums, opening its doors in 2020 as the home stadium of the recently-relocated Raiders. The venue has seats for up to 65,000 lucky fans.

This year’s championship game will be between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs, two teams that have seen a great deal of playoff success in recent years. The 49ers recently won NFC championships in 2023 and 2019, while suffering narrow defeats to the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship games of 2022 and 2021. On the opposite side of the field are the Chiefs, who have played in the previous six AFC championship games, winning four (2019, 2020, 2022, and 2023). They went on to play in three Super Bowls in that time span, winning two games and losing an uneven matchup against the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers in 2020.

Understanding the Basics of NFL Football

Wrapping your head around all of the rules of NFL football can be tough, even for those that have watched the sport for years. To spare us all a lot of confusion, I’ll cover just the basics. We can get into penalties, defensive schemes, and route concepts another day!

How Does Scoring Work?

The goal in an NFL football game, as in most competitive sports, is to outscore the opposing team. For the most part, points are achieved in four different ways: touchdowns, field goals, 2-point conversions, and extra points.

  • A touchdown occurs when one of the players on your team, whether on offense or defense, carries the football into the opposing team’s endzone. A football field has two endzones, on either end of the field, and teams play to defend their endzone and attack the opposing team’s half of the field. Touchdowns are worth six points.
    • After a touchdown, a team can kick an extra point or attempt a 2-point conversion. If a team elects to kick an extra point, the football is placed on the 15-yard line and must be kicked between the uprights of the opposing team’s goalpost. A successful kick is rewarded with one point, for a total of seven points scored (six for the touchdown, one for the extra point). Alternatively, a team may try a 2-point conversion. The ball is placed on the opposing team’s 2-yard line and your team must attempt to get the ball into the endzone. Success equals 2 points, for a total of eight scored (six for the touchdown, two for the 2-point conversion).
  • A field goal is similar to an extra point, but it may occur anywhere on the field, not specifically on the opposing team’s 15-yard line. Your team will attempt to kick the ball between the uprights of the opposing team’s goalpost. A successful kick results in three points.

Kicking Off the Game

In a nutshell, your team’s offense will try to score points on the opposing team and your defense will try to slow down the other side’s offense. Each team has a special teams unit that handles kickoffs, punts, field goal tries, and extra point attempts.

The game begins with a kickoff. The team that receives the football first is determined by a pre-game coin toss. The team that wins the toss decides whether they would like to start the first fifteen-minute quarter on offense or automatically receive the ball to begin the third quarter. Most teams elect to kickoff in the first quarter if they win the coin toss, meaning they will be on defense to begin the game. During the kickoff, each team sends eleven players onto the field. The kicker of the kicking team boots the ball as far as he can towards the other team’s endzone, giving them a chance to return the ball and set themselves up on offense.

What Does an NFL Team’s Offense Do?

When on offense, each team has four attempts (downs) to gain ten yards of field position by either running or passing the ball. If you gain ten or more yards within those four plays, you get a new set of downs. This process repeats until your team scores, you fail to convert on a fourth down and give the ball to the opposing team, or you elect to give the ball to the other team to give your defense a better chance of stopping them (punting). The ultimate goal is to score a touchdown, but kicking a field goal can also occur at any time.

Who Plays on Offense?

There are quite a few positions on the offensive side of the ball, but there are only eleven players on the field for each team at any one time. Without diving too deep into the specifics of each position, players include:

  • The quarterback: Your team’s quarterback is the commander of the offense. He receives the ball at the start of most plays and will either hand it off to another player or throw it to one of his teammates. 
  • Wide receivers: Receivers are talented players that your quarterback can throw the ball to. They run routes to get open, catch passes, and advance the ball to score touchdowns.
  • Running backs: Running backs are known for their ability to run the ball. They also work to protect their team’s quarterback and can also catch the ball.
  • Tight ends: Tight ends are especially large receivers. They can either help block for their team or run routes and catch the ball.
  • Offensive linemen: Offensive linemen protect the quarterback from the opposing defense and help their running back advance the ball by clearing a path for him. They match up against defensive linemen and linebackers, preventing their quarterback from being tossed down. 

What Does an NFL Team’s Defense Do?

Your team’s defense works to prevent the opponent from scoring a touchdown or field goal. They do so by taking down ball carriers on the opposing team or stopping their momentum to rule a play dead (tackles). If your defense takes down the opposing quarterback behind the line of scrimmage (where the ball was initially placed before a play began), this is referred to as a sack. Ideally, you want your defense to force the opponent to make a mistake that causes your team to secure possession of the football. Usually, this occurs in the form of a fumble or interception.

  • A fumble occurs when an opposing player loses the football before a play ends. The loose ball may be recovered by a player on either team. 
  • An interception occurs when a defensive player catches a pass intended for a player on the other team’s offense. When a defensive player catches a live ball, they essentially turn into a receiver. They can run the ball back towards the other team’s endzone and attempt to score.

If the opposing offense is unable to convert a third down and finds themselves facing a low probability of converting on fourth down, they will likely punt the ball. This is considered a win for your defense, as your offense will now get the ball back!

Who Plays on Defense?

The defensive side of the ball has quite a few different positions, similarly to the offense. On defense, you’ll find:

  • Defensive linemen: On the opposite end of the offensive linemen are the defensive linemen. These players attempt to shut down running plays and get to the quarterback to sack him or force him to throw the ball away before one of the offensive players can get open.
  • Edge rushers: A team’s edge rushers line up on either end of the defensive line. These tend to be fast or powerful players that excel in chasing down quarterbacks and setting the edge against run plays, making them invaluable to their team.
  • Linebackers: Linebackers can either rush the passer or play the center of the field, adding size and versatility to the heart of the defense. They may be called upon to stop a running back or cover an offensive player to keep them from getting the ball.
  • Cornerbacks: Cornerbacks work to cover the opposing team’s wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs to prevent them from getting the ball. Cornerbacks may play outside and matchup up with receivers or play inside as a “slot” or “nickel” cornerback.
  • Safeties: In most cases, the safety is the last line of defense for your team. They are typically lined back the furthest of all defenders and may help stop a run play or assist other defensive players by helping them cover their assigned offensive player.

What Does the Special Teams Unit Do?

The special teams unit handles kickoffs, punts, field goal attempts, and extra point attempts. The unit consists of both specialists, such as the team’s kicker, and players from other position groups, such as wide receivers or linebackers. The punter handles punting attempts, which is when your team kicks the ball to the other team to put their offense in a bad position. The kicker handles kickoffs, extra points, and field goal attempts. The long snapper is the playoff responsible for initiating punts, field goal attempts, and extra point attempts by snapping the football. 

Enjoying the Game With Your New Football Knowledge

Now that you’ve got a grasp of who’s who on the field and what it is that you’re looking at, it’s time to enjoy the big game! Grab some friends, get a tailgate going, and get ready to enjoy a game experience unlike any you’ve seen before. We hope you enjoy Super Bowl LVIII!

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