The National Football League or NFL is the premiere professional league for gridiron football in the United States. It was formed in 1920 by the merger of several regional pro football leagues, and was originally named the American Professional Football Conference. In 1960, a competing league, the American Football League, was created, and the combination of the two leagues made professional football the most popular spectator sport in the U.S., surpassing Major League Baseball. In the face of competition for players and rising costs, the NFL negotiated a merger with the AFL in 1966, and over the next four years merged the two leagues into a single National Football League, composed of two conferences, the NFC (made up primarily of teams from the original NFL) and the AFC (made up primarily of AFL teams). Since the merger was finalized in 1970, 6 more teams have been added to bring the NFL to its current makeup.
The current NFL is composed of 32 teams, 16 in the NFC and 16 in the AFC, the most recent expansion being the addition of the Houston Texans in 2002 (Houston's previous team, the Oilers, moved to Tennessee to become the Titans in 1998). Prior to this addition, each conference had three divisions, East, Central and West, but the 2002 season saw the creation of a "South" division in each conference, with the Central division being renamed "North", and teams changed divisions (and in the Seattle Seahawks' case, conferences) to arrange the divisions geographically while retaining the most historic matchups (for instance, the Dallas Cowboys are in the NFC East despite being further west than the St. Louis Rams of the NFC West, due to long-standing division rivalries of both teams in those conferences). The current structure of each conference is 4 divisions, North, South, East and West, of 4 teams each, which is the basis for much of the regular season and playoff structure.
The NFL season begins in the late summer with the preseason; four weeks of exhibition games, two home and two away for each team, that do not affect a team's win-loss record for the year. These games are primarily used to attract attention to a team's new players, as well as to give the coaches a look at various lineups and player combinations before deciding on an official starting lineup for the regular season. The preseason is also an opportunity for the league to set up "dream matchups"; games between popular teams that don't often play each other, or "grudge matches", recreating a matchup that had occurred in the previous year and resulted in severe fallout for one or both teams.
The season then proceeds into the regular schedule of 16 games played over 17 weeks:
- Three games at home against each of its three division rivals
- Three games away against each of its three division rivals
- Four games against the teams of another division of the same conference (rotating on a three-year cycle), divided as evenly as possible between home and away
- Four games against the teams of a division in the other conference (rotating on a four-year cycle), divided as evenly as possible between home and away
- Two games, one each against the teams in the two other divisions of the same conference (besides its own and the rotating division), who had the same division ranking in the previous year, one home and one away
- One "bye week" with no game played, typically in the middle third of the season, for the team to rest and practice, and also giving the league fewer games each week allowing them to give more TV airtime to each team.
Special game times are reserved for Thanksgiving Day, with some teams that would normally play on the following Saturday instead dealing with a "short week" from the previous Sunday game, in exchange for better ratings due to a time slot less likely to conflict with holiday travel plans.
At the end of the regular season, the team in each division with the best overall win-loss record "wins" their division and advances to the playoffs. Ties within a division are decided by a list of potential tiebreakers, starting with "head-to-head" record (a team that won both the games played against the other advances), then by division record, then by record against common opponents, then by conference record, and so forth. Additionally, the two best teams from the conference out of those who didn't win their division are chosen as "wild cards", and also advance. In the first round, the two division winners in each conference with the two best regular-season records get the week off (a "first round bye"), while the other two division winners are each matched with a wild card team from the conference. The winners from the first round are then matched with one of the "first-round bye" teams, and then the winners of those two games play each other for the conference championship. During this process, the team with the better regular-season record in each matchup gets home field advantage for the game, except that the "wild card" teams play every playoff game as the visiting team, even if their regular-season record was better than the team they're playing.
Once the two conference champions are decided, these two teams will play each other in the Super Bowl to decide the league champion. This game is usually held in mid to late January, or more recently in early February, after the NCAA college bowl games have been played (the expanded NCAA BCS structure has necessitated adjustments to the NFL schedule to avoid conflicts). The venue for each year's Super Bowl is decided several years in advance, out of a pool of competing stadiums that meet a set of criteria; primarily seating capacity, although climate and/or enclosure is also a factor as the game is played in the winter. The venue has never, to date, been the home field of either participating team, though this is not by rule; a team may advance to the Super Bowl in a year when their home stadium has been chosen to host it, and the game will then be played on that team's home field (though the team may still be labelled the "away team" for the game; the NFC champion is the home team in odd-numbered years while the AFC is the home team in even-numbered years). The Super Bowl is the most watched television event in the United States, and second only to the UEFA Champions League soccer final in worldwide ratings.
Players begin the path to the NFL at a very young age, with local "pee-wee" and "squirt" football leagues available for players as young as four. Interscholastic athletics typically begins in the 7th grade (about age 13), continuing through junior high and high school, and into collegiate play in the NCAA.
Division 1-A collegiate teams are heavily scouted by NFL representatives in preparation for the NFL Draft, the system in which most NFL players are hired (recruiting of new players from college outside the Draft is strictly controlled by the NFL and NCAA, though "free agents" can be hired by a team, and teams can hold "open tryouts" allowing anyone to audition for a spot). Teams are ordered in reverse order of their winning records from the previous season; the team with the worst winning record of the previous regular season gets the first pick from the eligible draftees, and so on, with the Super Bowl winner of that year getting the last pick in each round. Drafting typically lasts for several rounds, and "back-room" deals are allowed that can change the team's draft order (a team may, for instance, agree to trade its ability to choose a player in a particular round to another team in exchange for another player, money and/or other benefits).