The NFL is one of the most popular sports leagues in the entire world, even when you factor in the fact that the majority of its viewers come from the United States. Its popularity in the Land of Opportunity simply cannot be overstated — 99.9 million people have watched the 2020 Super Bowl on TV, and that’s without factoring in the people who have viewed it from abroad, or on some of the streaming platforms. If we were to throw these numbers into the official count, the viewership would probably double!

Sure, if you’re a soccer fan, these NFL numbers might not seem too impressive to you. After all, the 2018 World Cup final has seen 1.12 billion peopletuning in to see at least one minute of that match. Still, considering the fact that the NFL’s popularity is mostly limited to the United States and a limited number of football aficionados, located mostly in Asia and Latin America, you have to admit that it’s quite a significant local phenomenon.

From New York to Los Angeles, Americans of all races and political opinions put away their differences for the sake of one, more pressing rivalry — the teams battling it out on the football field. NFL games tend to bring out the best and the worst in people at the same time. On the one hand, you’ve got an amazing atmosphere of unity and mutual understanding amongst the fans of each team. On the other, there is animosity towards the supporters of the other sides, which can even escalate to violence sometimes.

If you’re new to the sport and its rules, but would like to give it a shot, whether as a foreigner looking in at the American craze or as a US citizen wanting to become part of something much bigger than yourself, you’ve come to the right place. This extensive NFL guide will provide you with all the info you could possibly need to dive straight into next weekend’s games with adequate knowledge of the game. From its rather straight-forward rules, through viewing options and NFL scheduling, all the way to brief descriptions of each team, we’ll cover it all! By the time you’re done reading, nothing about the NFL will confuse you ever again!

Football players in action
Football players in action

How to Watch the NFL Games

When it comes to getting into any particular sport, the most important thing you need to get out of the way in the first place is your preferred viewing method. You need to find a reliable source of live transmissions of the NFL matches (and pundit shows if you’re into that kind of thing) so you don’t ever find yourself having to miss a game due to a lack of viewing options.

There are quite a few feasible ways to watch the regular season games, playoffs, and the Super Bowl. The three most popular ones are regular TV networks, premium online platforms, and free streaming sites. You’ll find the pros and cons of using each one below!

Network TV

If you’re already subscribed to a cable service, then there might be no need for you to do anything else to gain access to all of the regular-season games and playoffs that are on the NFL schedule. Keep in mind, however, that the majority of channel packages restrict access to a certain number of sports channels, so you might need to pay extra for some of the regular season games, especially ones that aren’t played on Sunday, such as Monday or Thursday Night Football.

Pros of watching the NFL on network TV:

  • Easy access,
  • Simplicity — the channels already come as part of your package,
  • Pundit shows and post-game analysis all in one place; no need to click through menus or look up each separate show.

Cons of watching the NFL on network TV:

  • Some games are restricted by a paywall,
  • Not all TV plans include sports channels and you might need to expand your package, which is usually equivalent to a much bigger TV bill,
  • You’re at the mercy of the TV channel when it comes to choosing commentators and which games they will show (if you have a basic package with one or two sports channels),
  • Advertisements are played between each quarter with no way to skip them (on some channels, they even show up during the games).

Premium Online Platforms

The Internet is slowly making television completely obsolete, with the advent of streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime giving viewers an alternative option to enjoy their favorite shows and movies. More importantly, they let us regain control of what we watch, and when we watch it. Of course, live sporting events are time-specific and it doesn’t make much sense to view a rerun of a game once you already know the score (unless you’re a football tactics aficionado).

However, watching live matches on premium platforms let you pick the game you want to watch without paying more than the base subscription price, and some services, such as the NFL Game Pass, let you replay all of the regular season games and playoff matches, should you choose to do so! If you don’t already have a contract with a cable company, you might want to consider choosing a premium platform such as ESPN+ or the NFL Network app instead of a traditional TV sports package.

Pros of watching the NFL on premium online platforms:

  • Instant access to NFL games,
  • No hidden fees,
  • Some services (ex. NFL Game Pass) allow you to replay games whenever you want to,
  • Cheaper than TV packages.

Cons of watching the NFL on premium online platforms:

  • Subscription plans may not include extra content like pundit shows or post-game analysis,
  • If you’re not extremely passionate about football, they might not be worth the price,
  • If your internet connection isn’t top-notch, you’re probably never going to experience the HD option you have to pay for anyway.

Free Streaming Platforms

Although premium platforms where you can watch the NFL games come with perks that other services aren’t simply able to provide you, it doesn’t mean that they’re the be-all and end-all of sports broadcasting. In fact, there are plenty of great websites and mobile apps out there that allow you to stream most of the NFL season games, as well as the playoffs for free! No hidden fees, no ads every five minutes of viewing time, just pure NFL action.

One such platform is Joker Live Stream. We offer various stream links per each game so that you have the choice between various stations that broadcast the events. Aside from being able to watch every game of the NFL season for free, Joker also grants you the ability to chat with other users in real-time. You can exchange match predictions, betting tips, and opinions about particular teams’ form with like-minded people from all over the world!

Finally, although the services provided by Joker Live Stream are completely free of charge and are going to remain that way, we do offer a subscription-based plan for those of you who want to support the site’s developers and our efforts to keep sports accessible to everyone. The Joker HD Pass grants you access to Full HD, premium links for not only all of the NFL games, but also other sporting events, from soccer, through tennis, all the way to e-sports — we’ve got it all! Of course, all of these sports are also available to view for free.

Pros of watching the NFL on free streaming platforms:

  • Free, unrestricted access to all NFL matches as soon as they go live,
  • The ability to choose from a wide variety of alternative links,
  • Voluntary, subscription-based passes that improve your viewing experience,
  • In addition to the NFL, free live streams of other sports are also available.

Cons of watching the NFL on free streaming platforms:

  • No additional goodies for hardcore fans, such as pundit shows or game re-runs

American Football: the Basics

If you’re only starting to get into the NFL, you’re probably going to need to brush up on some of American football’s basic rules and the history of the sport. After all, it’s not as straightforward as it may seem. On the other hand, there is no need to be intimidated by the game’s rules: it’s not nearly as complicated as some of the other sports out there.

The Game and Its Rules

In every NFL game, two teams consisting of 11 players each compete across four 15-minute-long quarters. The main purpose of the game is to carry the ball over to the opponent’s end zone, either by making a run for it and avoiding getting tackled or throwing the ball downfield, to a teammate who is closer to that zone. 45 players are allowed onto the teams’ rosters for a single game, and they’re usually substituted on and off, depending on the coach’s tactics and the needs of the team during each particular moment of the game.

Perhaps the most confusing part about the NFL and American football, in general, are “downs”, which are an omnipresent aspect of the game and pretty much dictate its tempo. Every time a team is on the offense (meaning that it’s in possession of the ball), it has four chances (downs) to move the ball up by 10 yards. If they fail to do so within these chances, they have to give up possession and move into defense. Should they succeed and move the ball up by 10 yards, the count resets and they get another four downs to move the ball up by another ten yards. As you can see, downs aren’t nearly as confusing as people make them up to be. They may take some getting used to, but once that happens, you’ll soon realize that due to downs, the game is much more static and easier to follow than it would have been otherwise.

Finally, the one final aspect of American football you should acquaint yourself with to be able to enjoy the games is the scoring and how points are added up. There are quite a few ways for a team to get ahead in an NFL game, and it is essential to be familiar with all of them. Otherwise, the sport may turn out to be very confusing.

  • Touchdowns. The touchdown is the most important (and the most desirable) way of scoring points in American football. It happens when one of the players crosses the other team’s goal line with the ball, or when the ball is caught by one of the attackers in the end zone. Every touchdown counts for 6 points.
  • Field goal. It is scored when the ball is kicked in-between the two upright goalposts. Field goal attempts are most common during the fourth down, as a final way of trying to score before having to give up the ball. Field goals are worth 3 points.
  • Extra points. A team can get one extra point by kicking the ball through the uprights after scoring a touchdown. They can also opt to get another touchdown, which is worth 2 points, but that is rarely ever attempted, as it is much more difficult.
  • Safety. If a defending player tackles the opponent who’s got the ball in their end zone, the team their team gains 2 points for successfully ridding the opponent from a chance to score.

Brief History of the NFL

American football has its roots in British rugby and besides some rules having been changed, the two sports are very similar to each other to this day. Of course, in rugby, players don’t wear nearly as much protective gear as they do in the NFL.

When it comes to the National Football League, it was founded in Ohio, in 1920. Back then, it was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA), and its first president was Jim Thorpe, the legendary American athlete who was also a player for a variety of NFL teams across the US during the Roaring Twenties. It is also worth mentioning that Thorpe was not only an outstanding American football player, but he was also involved in professional baseball, as well as a part of the US Olympic decathlon and pentathlon team. It is fair to say that Jim Thorpe was a model sports personality, one of those who only come around every 100 years or so.

The APFA was rebranded into the NFL in 1922, and it has gradually taken on more teams to grow into the 32-member entertainment giant we know it as today.

Football fans watching the game in the stands
Football fans watching the game in the stands

How Many Games per Season?

The NFL season is divided into two parts: the regular-season games, and the playoff tournament, culminating in the Super Bowl, which is usually played on the first Sunday of each February. It is the regular-season games that determine which teams make it into the playoffs. The playoff tournament follows the standard pattern of a bracket tournament to reveal the two finalists who will face each other in the final game of the NFL season.

Regular-Season Games

It used to take a lot of time and effort to create the schedule for the NFL regular-season games before computers came along. Many factors need to be taken into account, such as the distances between the teams’ home stadiums, what day of the week they can play on in order to grant the players enough time to rest in between games, and many others. It gets all the more complicated once you factor in the fact that a whopping 256 games have to be played between Labor Day and early January, to leave enough time for the playoff tournament and Super Bowl preparations. Every team has to play 16 games within that 17-week period. To save the time and energy of NFL officials and allow them to take care of more pressing tasks, since 2002, the NFL schedule is composed by a special algorithm — it takes everything into account and comes up with a varied, yet fair schedule year in and year out.

There are five usual time slots for NFL regular-season games during the week:

  • One game on Thursday night (8:20 PM ET)
  • Three games every Sunday (1:00 PM, 4:05/4:25 PM, 8:20 PM ET)
  • One game on Monday night (8:15 PM ET)

Sometimes, games are played on other days and at other times to make up for unexpected changes or because of the way certain games were traditionally played. Certain matches are played on Saturday afternoons and evenings.

Another special day in the NFL schedule is Thanksgiving Day when three games are played on a Thursday. There is a special agreement in place, which dictates that Detroit Lions always host the early (1:00 PM) Thanksgiving game, and the Dallas Cowboys are the permanent hosts of the afternoon Thanksgiving fixture (4:05/4:25 PM). The evening game can be hosted by any other team, which is determined in the same way any other game schedule is: via the algorithm designed specifically to schedule NFL games.

Playoff Tournament

Once the regular-season games have all been played, the NFL season moves into the deciding phase: the playoffs. This bracket tournament used to consist of 12 teams, but it has been expanded in the 2020 NFL season to include 2 additional clubs, bringing the total number of participants up to 14 teams (seven best-performing teams from each conference).

The first games of the playoffs are the so-called Wild Card games — they allow the worse teams from each division to secure a spot in the further stages tournament by beating some of the better teams. It’s important to note here that as opposed to other sports, such as soccer, the NFL doesn’t have a “standings table” per se, and the teams’ overall performances are used to determine the “seed number” they will get for the playoffs.

Remember: only the top 7 seeds from each conference make it into the playoffs. The No. 1 Seed goes straight into the next round of the tournament, while the rest have to battle it out during the Wild Card Weekend. This is how it is going to work in 2021:

  • No. 2 seeds will play the No. 7 seeds,
  • No. 3 seeds will play the No. 6 seeds,
  • No. 4 seeds will play the No. 5 seeds.

This makes for three games per each conference, giving six Wild Card Weekend Games altogether. Some may deem it unfair that teams who have performed well all throughout the season may see their chances of making it to the Super Bowl shattered by one bad day. On the other hand, this type of format gives every team a chance to advance further and cause some huge upsets, increasing the NFL playoff tournament’s entertainment value.

After the Wild Card Weekend, the following two weeks consist of games following the bracket system, which will determine the two very best teams that will face each other in the Super Bowl. In 2021, the biggest event in American sports will take place on February 7. Be sure to save that date if you’re serious about following the NFL this year!

Houston Texans quarterback throwing a football down the field
Houston Texans quarterback throwing a football down the field

NFL Teams and Conferences: Basic Guide

For a league consisting of as many as 32 teams, the NFL season is surprisingly well organized. The same can be said about the structure of the entire league, which is split up into two conferences, both of which are then divided into four smaller divisions, with each division consisting out of four teams. This system makes seeding the best teams for the playoffs much easier and helps avoid some of the controversies (although not all of them — that’s pretty much impossible in the world of sports).

You need to know the make-up of both of the conferences, as well as the teams that participate in them in order to make more sense of the game schedule.

American Football Conference

The AFC was created in 1970, due to the merger with NFL’s rival league, the American Football League, and the NFL’s subsequent switch towards the conference system. It is split up into four divisions: the AFC North, South, East, and West. Teams from all over the United States form the AFC, with seven of the best ones going on to represent the conference in the NFL playoffs. You can find brief descriptions of every team in the AFC below. Use that as your guide, if you ever get lost in the world of NFL teams and regular-season games.

AFC North

  • Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are the oldest NFL franchise in the American Football Conference. Founded in 1933, their fans pride themselves in the team’s long-standing tradition. Oddly enough, they have not won a single championship until after the AFL-NFL merger of 1970.
  • Cleveland Browns: The Browns are one of the three teams from the old NFL that have joined the American Football Conference in 1970, however, as opposed to the Steelers, their glory days have come before the merger. They lifted their last NFL championship trophy in 1964.
  • Cincinnati Bengals: Although they have never won the league, the Cincinnati Bengals have always been a force to be reckoned with. They’ve got a complicated shared history with their main Ohio rivals, the Cleveland Browns, as the Bengals franchise was founded by Paul Brown, the legendary Cleveland coach and co-founder (the Browns were also named “Browns” in his honor).
  • Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are the youngest team in the AFC’s North Division (founded in 1996), but their trophy cabinet is much richer than some of their older rivals’, such as the Cincinnati Bengals, for example. They’ve won the Super Bowl twice, once in 2000 and more recently in 2012.

AFC South:

  • Houston Texans: The Houston Texans were founded in 2002, which makes them the youngest franchise currently playing in the NFL. They have not managed to win the league so far but given their aspirations and the fact that they have been regular playoffs participants in the 2010s, their fans claim that it’s only a matter of time.
  • Indianapolis Colts: The Colts are Indianapolis’s greatest pride, which is quite odd when you consider the fact that they were founded in Baltimore. Nevertheless, five NFL championships (including two Super Bowls) speak for themselves.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars were not a major NFL power ever since their incorporation into the league in 1995. After a Pakistani-American businessman took over as the club’s owner, their net worth was doubled and hopes of a championship run were rekindled. Unfortunately, the Jaguars still have to prove their worth on the field — the last time they participated in the playoffs was 2017, and they’ve been absent from that tournament for ten years prior to that.
  • Tennessee Titans: Although they boast a very powerful name, the Titans aren’t actually that strong of a team. Their two league championships are from way back in their pre-merger AFL days, so officially, they are yet to win a major title.

AFC East:

  • Buffalo Bills: Much like the Tennessee Titans, the Buffalo Bills are a club with a great history, but have yet to prove their worth in the NFL. They are the first NFL team O.J. Simpson, the infamous convicted murder felon-slash-great footballer played for.
  • Miami Dolphins: The once-great (two-time Super Bowl champions in the 70s) Miami Dolphins are struggling to find their form for the majority of the 2000s and 2010s.
  • New England Patriots: The exact opposite is the Patriots’ case. This franchise has never mattered much in the past, but the 2000s and 2010s have seen them skyrocket to the title of one of the most decorated NFL teams in history with a whopping six championships won within that period. A lot of their recent success can be accredited to Tom Brady, the oldest active player in the NFL, regarded as the best quarterback in the league’s history by many pundits. Having spent the first 20 years of his career at New England Patriots, he’s left the team with an enormous hole to fill when he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020.
  • New York Jets: The Jets are probably one of the most famous and least successful NFL teams, making them the butt of countless jokes. Their last Super Bowl win was in 1968 — the first final in history to actually bear this famous name.

AFC West:

  • Denver Broncos: The most fearsome team of the late 1990s as the ’97 and ’98 Super Bowl winners, many Broncos’ fans were sure of their team’s new Golden Age when they won the prestigious title once again in 2015. However, they have not even qualified for the playoffs since then. Talk about disappointment.
  • Kansas City Chiefs: They are the current holders of the NFL title, having beaten the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl on February 2, 2020. It was the last major sports final before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the stadiums across the world.
  • Las Vegas Raiders: Although they have not won a major title since 1983, the Las Vegas Raiders are still considered a decent NFL team, but don’t really have what it takes to push themselves to the next level.
  • Los Angeles Chargers: Historically, the Chargers are definitely the worse out of the two LA teams that play in the NFL, but that is not saying much, since the LA Rams haven’t been successful in the last two decades either. LA residents — if you want to avoid disappointment, you should probably stick to basketball.

National Football Conference

Prior to the AFL-NFL merger in the 1970s, the teams that form today’s NFC used to be the entirety of the NFL (along with three teams that joined the AFC after the merger). There are 16 teams in that divisions, each one playing 16 regular-season games per season, just like in the AFC. Due to its long history, and the fact that NFL championship titles prior to the merger are also counted in the all-time statistics, the NFC is composed out of much more decorated teams when it comes to the National Football League records. Just like the AFC, the NFC is split up into four divisions, each one corresponding with the respective teams’ geographical locations.

NFC North:

  • Chicago Bears: As one of the founding members of the NFL, the Bears have been around for a long time. Ever since their inception, they’ve won 9 league championships, but only one of them was a Super Bowl (1985). The other 8 could be considered ancient history by modern standards.
  • Detroit Lions: Much like their home city’s industry’s, the Lions’ Golden Age was in the 1950s, when they claimed three league championships. Ever since the 1970s, they’ve struggled to stay relevant, much like their home city of Detroit.
  • Green Bay Packers: Had the pre-merger championships carried the same weight as merger ones, the Packers would be mentioned in the same breath as the New England Patriots when it comes to the most decorated franchises. Four Super Bowls since the 1970s are certainly not a bad record, though.
  • Minnesota Vikings: Although they’ve only won one league championship way back in 1969, the Vikings have one of the most dedicated fanbases, and their winning run of ’69 is remembered to this day as a stellar example of defensive football tactics.

NFC South:

  • Atlanta Falcons: Out of the few NFL teams to never have won a league championship in the history of their existence, the Falcons have certainly come closest maintain to reaching that title. They’ve lost the 2017 Super Bowl in overtime against the New England Patriots. They’re still a force to be reckoned with, though, and they might just have what it takes to win the league in the near future.
  • Carolina Panthers: If NFL teams had flavors, the Carolina Panthers would taste like water. Except for the 2003 Super Bowl, when they’ve almost snatched the championship (lost 29-32 to the Patriots), the franchise has struggled to maintain good form for the better part of their existence, with an extremely bland style of play and a lack of sense of direction from their board of directors.
  • New Orleans Saints: Unfortunately for the New Orleans Saints, the NFL does not give out trophies for consistency. If they did, this franchise would certainly claim most of them. Having won the 2009 Super Bowl, they’ve made the playoffs in nearly every NFL season of the 2010s, and despite never making it to the final again, the New Orleans Saints are a fearsome side to play against, whether in the regular-season games or during the playoff tournament.
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers’ owners are the Glazer family and as Manchester United fans (another Glazer-owned sports giant) will surely attest to, this comes with two things: a huge budget and a lack of recent on-field success to back it up. This may soon change with Tom Brady’s arrival to Tampa Bay, though.

NFC East:

  • Dallas Cowboys: The five-time Super Bowl champions are one of the most consistent sides and are certain to give teams hell in nearly every NFL season. Although they have not won the championship since 1995, they are regularly in the round-up as one of the stronger sides in most start-of-season pundit predictions.
  • New York Giants: The Giants are one of the most recognized NFL sides in the history of the game, and with 8 championships in their 95-year-long existence, they certainly have the credentials to back their fame. Ever since their 2011 Super Bowl win, however, they have struggled to reach the heights they aspire to.
  • Philadelphia Eagles: Until the 2010s, the Eagles were not a formidable side by any means. With the arrival of Doug Pederson as their coach in 2016, however, the Philadelphia side became one of the strongest franchises in the entire league. They went on to win the 2017 Super Bowl, and with the way they are playing, their next appearance in the prestigious final should only be a matter of time.
  • Washington Football Team: Don’t let the generic name fool you. It’s one of the oldest teams in the NFL. Better known as the Washington Redskins, the team had to retire this branding in 2020 due to the fact that it might have been interpreted as offensive toward Native Americans.

NFC West:

  • Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals are the oldest professional American football club in the United States, and although it is a worthy achievement, their performance on the field has not done much justice to their long history. They’ve only won the NFL twice, with the last time being 1947.
  • Los Angeles Rams: The Rams are the most successful football club in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it does not mean much. They won their last Super Bowl in 1999, and even though they’ve picked up a few division championships since then, they have not lifted a major trophy for over two decades.
  • San Francisco 49ers: The San Francisco 49ers are one of the most successful football teams in California, and although they’ve won all of the Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and 90s, they seem to be going through some sort of a Renaissance in recent years, having made it to the most recent (2020) Super Bowl, only to lose it to the Kansas City Chiefs.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Even though they’ve joined the NFL in 1976, the Seahawks have only become a formidable side in the 2010s. They won the Super Bowl in 2013, and have participated in most of the playoff tournaments between 2003 and 2020. When it comes to advancing past the regular- season games, no team has a better 21st-century record than the Seattle Seahawks.
NFL branded footballs
NFL branded footballs