From its humble origins as a re-codified version of the 1800s game played in English public schools – that also spawned football and rugby among others – American football has grown, evolved and become the most popular sport in the United States.
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Founded in 1920, the National Football League is the world’s premier competition for the sport. An agreement to merge with the rival American Football League (AFL) in the 1960s saw the inception of what was initially a Championship game between the two leagues known as the Super Bowl – an annual match which, over time, has become one of the most watched sporting events in the world. This season, Super Bowl 51 will take place at the conclusion of the 2016/17 season on February 5th next year, and will be hosted at the 72,000 capacity NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
The NFL regular season begins in September with 32 teams vying for the championship. Rather than one division, these teams are divided into two separate conferences. The American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) were established as part of the league restructure following the finalisation of the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. Each conference consists of 16 teams who are divided into four divisions – East, West, North and South. Each team plays 16 games over a 17-week period. Fixtures are quite complex and are decided by the league’s own unique formula. A team will play a mixture of games against sides from their own division, and a select number of games against other sides within the other conference.
As a slight aside, it’s worth pointing out that American Football is no longer simply a phenomenon confined to the United States. The game now has a global reach way beyond it’s borders. The popularity is so widespread, in the UK especially, that the regular season games now include selected matches played in England. Initially beginning with one per season in 2007, in recent years this has increased to three. Whereas previously these games have always been played at Wembley Stadium, this year one of the matches will be hosted at Twickenham for the very first time.
When the regular season has concluded, the play-offs begin. This is a single elimination tournament format to determine the champions of each conference, and beyond that, the country. The two conference championships consist of 6 teams each – the four division winners and two further teams with the best overall record, known as Wild Cards. The two teams with the best records in each conference receive a ‘bye’, leaving the remaining four to compete in a preliminary Wild Card round with the two losing teams going out. Following that, the remaining four teams face each other in knock outs to determine the respective conference champion. The two winners then face each other at the Super Bowl.
The prize at the end of it all is the famous Vince Lombardi trophy – named after the legendary coach who successfully led the Green Bay Packers to the first two Championships in 1966 and 1967.
The road to Houston begins on Friday 9th September, but before the first ball is even kicked, the teams have to go through the famous drafting process to build their squads by selecting and trading players. This happens well in advance of the new season – this year’s draft took place at the end of April – in order to allow new players to train and acclimatise to their new surroundings during pre-season. The drafting order for teams is inverse to their win/loss records from the previous season, meaning the teams who performed poorest are granted the earliest draft picks. This is done in order to prevent dominance and increase competitiveness. Naturally, a few teams will still remain ahead of the pack in terms of their chances of lifting the famous trophy come February.
Top Picks For 2016/2017
The New England Patriots will again be expected to make a run for Super Bowl success this season, with the bookmakers installing them as favourites. They will however be without star Quarterback Tom Brady for four games as he serves a suspension over the controversial ‘Deflate Gate’ scandal ahead of their 2015 Super Bowl triumph. After trouncing the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game, it emerged the Patriots had deliberately deflated balls in order to make them easier to throw and catch. Shenanigans aside, they remain arguably the strongest team in their conference. Head coach Bill Belichick will be looking to land a fifth title with the team.
In the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks are once again expected to provide a stiff challenge and potentially reach a third Super Bowl in just four years. After crushing the Denver Broncos in 2014, they were narrowly defeated by the above-mentioned New England a year later – there will be a sense of revenge on their minds should both teams triumph in their respective conferences.
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But Seattle will take nothing for granted. Especially with the looming threat of this year’s losing Super Bowl finalists the Carolina Panthers. Having beaten the Seahawks in the playoffs, but then falling short against the Denver Broncos, the Panthers will be hoping to go one better this time around. With arguably the League’s best player and last year’s MVP (Most Valuable Player) among their ranks – Quarterback Cam Newton, few will be ruling them out for another shot at glory at the end of the season.
Beyond these three, the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and reigning Super Bowl champions the Broncos will all be considered slight outsiders, but will very much expect to keep pace and be in contention at the turn of the year. The beauty of the sport, and its widespread appeal, comes primarily from the fact that an outright victor is so difficult to pick as each season rolls around. This competitive and somewhat unpredictable nature is exactly what keeps millions of fans hooked nearly every weekend between September and January – not just across America, but increasingly, around the world too.