The NFL (National Football League) is the most popular sports program in all of America. For this article, we will be giving the low down on what goes on during NFL games and how long one takes. If you’re a big fan, knowing the amount of time you need to set aside to be able to stay for one entire game can help you plot your schedule around it. 

During the 2018-2019 season of the NFL, one game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes. Regular games consist of 4 quarters with each one lasting for 15 minutes. In between quarters, there is a 12-minute halftime break. After the first and third quarter, there is also a 2-minute break for changing courts.  

Even with the long time, avid NFL fans do not mind at all. Until today, NFL games are still very popular and might be the most popular out of all American sports. A lot of people don’t know this but the actual time when the ball is in play is just 11 minutes out of the entire three hours. And this applies to all NFL games.

How long is a football game?

According to a number of NFL statistics, there are only 11 minutes in that entire span of time that the ball is actually in play. Even so, NFL fans still watch the entire thing especially during crucial games like championship matches. Like stated above, the entirety of a single NFL game is 3 hours and 12 minutes long. 

For live games, you have to allot more time than that. When going to a football stadium, expect hundreds of people that you have to compete with for tickets and parking space. If you do not buy your ticket beforehand, you have to wait in line at the ticket booth without a hundred percent guarantee that there would still be any good seats left. After that, you may want to buy some snacks first before finding your seats. When it starts, there is the actual game and then halftime shows that is also another thing that fans await. 

When it’s over, you have to squeeze in with hundreds of people going out from the stadium at the same time to get to your car. So a rough estimate would be four hours for attending a live NFL stadium game.

How many quarters in one game and how long does each one last?

group of men playing football on green grass field during daytime

If you really know the basics of how a football game goes, you may be able to appreciate it and enjoy watching it. 

Basically, there are 4 quarters in a game, each one is 15 minutes long. There is a 3-minute break after each quarter and a 15-minute halftime break after the first two quarters. All the breaks for the first half of the game when added up totals to 33 minutes. A sudden death overtime can happen if the score is tied up in the 4th quarter. Whichever team scores first in the overtime wins the game. 

There is another break that lasts for 13 minutes and 30 seconds, following the 2017 benchmark that the NFL follows. For championship games, halftime breaks are even more exciting because of the live entertainment. Halftime breaks are usually just 12 minutes at regular NFL games. But for the Superbowl, sometimes it lasts for 30 minutes or more because there are performances by famous artists.

The third quarter continues after the halftime break, still lasting 15 minutes. The same 3-minute break follows after and then the fourth and final quarter. All the quarters combined together lasts for 1 hour and 6 minutes plus a 30-minute halftime break at the most. That equates to 1 hour and 36 minutes in total for an entire duration of an NFL championship game. 

The sudden death overtime is for special incidents when the score is tied up in the 4th quarter. Before it was 15 minutes but in 2017, it was reduced to only 10 minutes. Whichever team scores first is declared the winner. 

First quarter

Each quarter lasts for 15 minutes. The break between the second and third quarter is called the halftime break. There will be a sudden death overtime if the scores are tied up even after the final quarter. A 3-minute break is granted after a quarter is done. A total of 33 minutes of game time is spent for two quarters including the breaks. 

Second quarter

This quarter will be succeeded with the halftime break that lasts for 13 minutes and 30 seconds, based on the 2017 NFL benchmark that is now being followed by all NFL games. Live entertainment is customary for halftime breaks. 

NFL Super Bowls have halftime breaks that last for more than 30 minutes, which is allotted for live performances of famous performers. 

Third quarter

After the halftime break, the game resumes with the third quarter for another 15 minutes followed by a 3-minute break. Two quarters last for 33 minutes. A total of 66 minutes is spent for the actual gameplay excluding the halftime break which varies on the type of game.

Fourth and final quarter

As mentioned before, in the event that the score of the two opposing teams are tied up after the whistle to end the fourth quarter, a sudden death overtime is granted that lasts for 10 minutes. It was previously 15 but changes were made in 2017 that reduced the time. The team that scores first will win the game. 

How long do football games last on TV?

aerial photo of football field during daytime

Watching an NFL game on TV is a different experience. You have to sit through 20 commercial breaks with over a hundred ads which analysts believe takes up about one-third of the entire duration of the game.

When you watch an NFL game on TV, you can expect over three hours of sitting time. As a matter of fact, the longest NFL game ever played lasted for seven hours. So try picturing yourself sitting on your couch for seven hours. 

Pregame discussion

For a TV broadcast of an NFL game, the host starts the show with a brief introduction followed by a pregame discussion by a few sports analysts and other retired NFL players. They will talk about the expected gameplay from the teams and the players. There will be one or two commercial breaks before the game officially starts. 

Postgame review

Shortly after the game is over, the host will do a post game review which is basically a bunch of replays and recaps of the highlights of the game. The MVP of the game will be interviewed by the host usually in the middle of the field as well as the coaches of both teams and other players. 

How long is a live NFL game?

The actual live game lasts more than 3 hours from kickoff until the final whistle. But if you really want to be present for the entire duration including the formalities, the opening ceremony, and the coin toss, you will spend an additional 15 minutes in the stadium. 

But obviously, every game is unique. A lot of things can happen that can delay a game and cause it to finish longer than expected. You should also add in the time it takes for travel to the stadium, parking your car, the time it takes to find your seats, and even getting snacks. After the game, getting out of the stadium will also take several minutes due to the number of people exiting the venue at the same time. We estimate 4 to 6 hours tops for attending the live event. 

What factors can delay a game?

people in winter jackets standing on snow covered ground during daytime

A lot of things can affect the time it takes for a game to end. Some incidents can lead to unforeseen delays. The timer can also be stopped for a number of reasons such as:

  • Commercial breaks before a kickoff
  • Target fails to catch a throw from the quarterback
  • A small celebration at the end zone after a touchdown or field goal
  • Calling timeouts
  • Penalties e.g., offside, pass interference, excess number of players on the field
  • Replays and recaps
  • Halftime break
  • Out of bounds, tackling, and touchdowns pauses the timer
  • Two-minute warnings in the second and fourth quarter indicates commercial break
  • One team killing the time by not snapping the ball until the last second. This is usually done by the winning team where they take time before they snap the ball. 
  • Injury

Other factors that can lengthen the duration of an NFL game

1. Game flow

A really close match will most likely lengthen the game especially if the scores are always tied up at every end of a quarter. If the scores are close, the losing time will probably call for multiple timeouts. Coaches do this to give their team a chance to have the ball in their possession and even the score. For the offensive team, they will most likely attempt to get the ball out of bounds or do a spike to make the most out of the remaining time. These techniques will slow down the game and can add up to 30 minutes to the total duration of the game. 

2. Playing style

If one team just passes the ball around as an offensive technique, this will slow the game down. But if the team chooses to run the ball, this will make for faster gameplay and shorter duration of the game. 

More passes will delay the game and lead to frequent pauses of the timer. While plays with more running go smoothly and will not have that much pauses so obviously, the game will be shorter. If teams also kill the time by using their timeouts before actually trying to win a touchdown, it will also delay the game even more as opposed to them vying for a goal every time they are in possession of the ball. 

3. Number of penalties

Penalties are also very common game delayers. When a penalty is called, the referees will double check before they declare it. The NFL games during 2015 were the most extended ones and that was also the year when the highest average number of penalties were acquired in a game. 

When the penalty flag is raised by the referee, the timer is automatically put to a pause after the whistle is blown. The referees will then assemble to converse with one another. Once a decision has been made,  the head referee will announce it to the players and to the crowd. The ball will be given to the rightful team. This entire ordeal could take a few minutes. 

If the referees have different judgments, they will allot some time for a decision to be made. Sometimes there would be an incident when two fouls are called in a single play. Coaches and referees can get into conflicts and the process of resolving these disagreements can further add to the delay. 

4. Replay reviews

Replay reviews serve as a basis for referees and other game officials for calling penalties and fouls. They are very beneficial in the transparency and integrity of the NFL games. However, these can also contribute to increasing the duration of the event. It was back in 1999 when the NFL first introduced replay reviews. Before then, there was no solid evidence to prove whether or not the right call was made and games went on for a shorter time compared to now. 

5. Unpredictable weather

One of the uncontrollable factors that greatly affect how football games go is the weather. Football is an outdoor game and mainly relies on good weather to be able to go smoothly. For heavy thunderstorms, the safety of the players and the crowd must be considered so the match will really extend to an indefinite time. If the winds are strong, it will also affect the flight of the ball so it will most likely be a running game instead of a passing game. 

6. Broadcast

Regular stand-alone games are played on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays. These games are more likely to get extended compared to an NFL game that is played on Sunday. Pre-game activities may also be a part of these events which will also extend total game time.

In the event when a veteran player will retire his jersey, a short ceremony will be done to pay tribute and honor the player. The halftime break entertainment will also lengthen the entire event especially during the Super Bowl when world-famous celebrities will perform. There are also commercial breaks to consider.  

Longest recorded NFL games

people watching soccer game during daytime

Tennessee Titans Vs. Miami Dolphins

Held on September 9, 2018, the match between the Tennessee Titans and the Miami Dolphins lasted for a total of seven hours and eight minutes. This is the longest NFL game ever recorded in history.

The game ended with a score of 27-20 in favor of the Dolphins. The delay was due to the intense lightning shows which forced the game officials to pause the game. The first lightning happened in the second quarter with only 1 minute and 11 seconds left on the clock. 

It went on for almost two hours. When they were convinced that it had stopped, they resumed the game. But in the third quarter with 6 minutes and 47 seconds left, the lightning returned and lasted for 2 hours and 2 minutes. 

Fortunately, the crowd stayed to watch until the end. There were about 10,000 roaring fans in the stadium who were part of making history in that iconic game. 

Baltimore Ravens Vs. Chicago Bears

The second longest match recorded in the NFL was played between the Baltimore RAvens and the Chicago Bears. It was held on November 17, 2013 and lasted for 5 hours and 16 minutes.

Actual statistics of the duration of NFL games

There is a very big difference between the time when the ball is actually in play compared to the time that the entire event lasts. The ball is only in play for a total of 11 minutes in that three-hour duration. The Wall Street confirmed this statistic when it was recorded during one NFL game back in 2010. 

So in reality, the audience will sit for 75 minutes for the non-game activities. This usually consists of breaks and entertainment. But because of the hype that surrounds the NFL events, avid fans are still in full support. Super Bowls are still attended by thousands upon thousands of football fanatics. 

How NFL speeds up the games

NFL logo

Some NFL fans have circulating discussions and theories on how games are sped up. It is not actually confirmed if these are true, but the suspicion remains nonetheless. Below are some common theories that fans have concocted:

  • Speeding up the instant replays through reviews
  • The 40-second snap clock is brought down to only 30 seconds
  • Clock is kept running even during incomplete passes or plays
  • No more 2-minute warnings
  • Lessen the number of timeouts and challenges granted for every team
  • Lessen commercials or using double box to show a commercial on one screen and the play on the other screen 

How many commercials in one broadcast?

Commercials take up around 25% of the entire NFL game broadcast. In that three-hour span, commercials run for a total of 50 minutes or more. 15 to 25 advertisements are shown in every quarter so that adds up to around 100 all in all for a single game. 

Conclusion

3 hours and 12 minutes is the average estimate of the total duration of one NFL game. This does not seem that long for football fanatics who want to savor every moment of a match. 

Regardless of the long hours and possible delays, football remains to this day, a popular American sport.