A beginner’s guide to the Superbowl

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Christine Coffey presents the best self-help guide to getting through Superbowl LIV

With Superbowl LIV on the horizon, many are just getting up to speed with the NFL in time for American Football’s biggest event of the season. The BBC have extended their broadcasting deal with the NFL, so both UK and Irish viewers will be taking full advantage of the free-to-air-tv for viewing parties. 

For those planning on tuning in to watch their first match of this rugby hybrid they call ‘football’ across the Atlantic Ocean, there are a few things you should know before subjecting yourself to nearly 4 hours of tv advertisements, half time extravaganzas and the occasional feat of sporting endeavour that will stretch into the early hours of the morning. 

It is a rather simple game to follow. After a kick-off, the team that have the ball send out their “offence” and the opposition send out their “defence”. They have four chances (or downs) to progress at least 10 yards. If they succeed, they get a fresh set of downs and can continue working towards the ‘end zone’ for a score. If they fail to make the required 10 yards the ball is turned over and the opposition send out their offensive unit and the team that were attacking now have to defend. 

For this reason, the third down (third attempt) enjoys much attention, because if the team haven’t managed to make it the 10 yards after three goes (known as converting on third-down), they generally choose to punt the ball or attempt a field goal on their fourth down. This continues until the ref calls for half time, when the biggest of all interval shows ensues with high profile music artists drafted in for iconic performances which garner almost as much media attention as the game itself. 

Coldplay, Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé are just some of the previous headliners at the Superbowl Halftime Show. No pressure on this year’s performers Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. After the concert-like excitement the pitch is cleared, there’s another kick-off and it’s pretty much as you were in the first half. 

For those worried about not understanding the game, there’s no need to study the rulebook before going to your mate’s viewing party, as the commentators have a habit of talking through what happened after every play (they have about 40 seconds to fill before the next one). The better defence usually wins the game for their team. That is, turnovers, interceptions or forcing the opposition to punt are obvious metrics to indicate a defence’s dominance over an opposition offence. 

The quarterback is doing well if he is connecting with his receivers and making first downs. The ground game is working if they are making yards running the ball. One-handed catches are the equivalent of European football’s nutmeg and turnovers or interceptions are celebrated with the same as a touchdown. 

In accumulating scores, touchdowns give you the biggest bang for your buck with 6 points being awarded for catching the ball in or running the ball into the end zone at the end of the field. After a touchdown the scoring team are afforded the opportunity to score ‘extra points’ by either kicking the ball through the posts (one point) or the more difficult (but more lucrative) option of taking one more chance to get the ball in the end zone again (two points for another touchdown essentially). 

If your defence manages to take down an opposition ball carrier in their own end zone you are awarded two points. Field goals are akin to rugby penalties, only they are always directly in front of the posts and they don’t require infractions from the defence, the offence elect to take the kick. As in rugby, slotting one gives the scorer’s team 3 points, however the American football adaptation comes with the added threat of several-hundred pounds of defenders charging the kicker down. 

Before the big showdown in Miami, the San Francisco 49ers’ staunch defensive unit will take on Aaron Rodgers and the Green-Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. Kansas City Chiefs will go into the AFC analogue as slight favourites where they face the Tennessee Titans, who are on a Cinderella run and looking to cause another major upset. These games are effectively All-Ireland Semi-Finals, and the winners will play for the Lombardi trophy in February. 

If you dislike the VAR checks recently introduced into the Premier League, then the nearly 4 hours it takes to get through the Superbowl might test your limits. 4 quarters of 15 minutes should mean a short and sharp 60-minute game that’s over quicker than a hurling match, but that hour of game time gets stretched out by the breaks between plays, the play reviews and the intervals themselves. 

The traditional Irish sporting palette isn’t accustomed to the stop-start tempo of an American Football game. Viewing parties are of great service in this capacity, as the stoppages in play can be filled with food, friends and anything other than watching another ad-break. Whether you’re a first-timer or an avid fan, or you’re only tuning in for the half-time show, be prepared for an onslaught of tv advertisements and statistics. Superbowl night will be a slow, multiple hour jog between plays, not a sprint.