Trying to predict winners of football games is extremely difficult, even for a seasoned fan that knows the teams well. With that said, there’s nothing more difficult than predicting the length of a football game.
It’s a large reason why fans are forced to DVR the half-hour show after the game, just in case it runs longer than expected.
So, how long are football games?
Most football games last anywhere between two hours and four hours, but the average for an NFL game is 3 hours and 12 minutes. Games generally have four quarters, which last 8-15 minutes, depending on the league you’re talking about and the official rules for that league.
There’s a lot to love about American football. It’s an intense sport packed with huge hits, big moments, and clutch players that make the game as interesting as any.
Of course, no sport is perfect and there are certainly a ton of flaws when it comes to football — including how long it takes to complete a game.
Since the length of a football game largely depends on the league you’re playing in and the rules you’re playing by, let’s discuss how long a game of football really takes — in the NFL, college football, high school football, and even pee-wee football.
Play Clock vs Game Clock
Before we get into the actual length of football games and the different factors that come into play, we must first understand the difference between the game clock and the play clock. Not all sports are equipped with both, but they’re extremely necessary in the game of football.
The game clock is responsible for keeping track of the time left in each quarter. Some leagues play 15-minute quarters, some play 12-minute quarters, and some play 10-minute quarters. The game clock always counts down and the quarter ends when the clock hits 00:00.
The play clock, on the other hand, is responsible for keeping track of the time left for each play. This helps speed up the game because each team has a limited amount of time before they must snap the ball.
It prevents teams from standing around and running the clock out. The play clock counts down from 40 seconds once the last play ends.
In the event of a timeout, two-minute warning, end of the quarter, penalties, extra point, 2-point conversion, or a punt, the play clock is set to 25 seconds instead of 40 seconds.
The game clock ensures the game doesn’t run past the 60, 48, or 40 minutes of actual game time, while the play clock protects the integrity of the game and improves the flow of each quarter.
How Long are NFL Games?
On average, NFL games take 3 hours and 12 minutes from kickoff until the final whistle is blown. While the NFL is actively looking for ways to shorten games, they still have a long way to go and are far from meeting the viewer’s demands.
The longest game ever recorded was 7 hours and 8 minutes, while the fastest game ever recorded was 2 hours and 29 minutes. The fastest Super Bowl ever recorded was 3 hours and 44 minutes.
Despite averaging over three hours, the game clock for the NFL is only 60 minutes – 15 minutes per quarter. The play clock is 40 seconds long but can be shortened to 25 seconds in certain situations.
Halftime is 12 minutes long and there’s a two-minute break after the first and third quarters. On average, each team receives 12 possessions per game.
Most NFL games are played on Sunday, but 1-2 games are often played on Thursday and Monday nights. As the playoffs near, they’ll play some primetime games on Saturday as well. Games usually aren’t scheduled on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.
According to a 2010 calculation by The Wall Street Journal, which is still applicable today, there are only 11 minutes of actual playtime in the NFL.
This might sound like a fake statistic, but it makes sense when you consider how often the game clock is ticking while teams are huddled up, standing around, and planning their next move.
Even more surprising is the average of 17 minutes spent on video replays, 75 minutes of watching players, coaches, and refs stand around, 20 commercial breaks, and 100 advertisements per game. The NFL could cut an hour off the total air time by eliminating advertisements.
At the end of the day, fans only see about four seconds of actual action per play.
How Long Are College Football Games?
If you thought NFL games lasted a long time, you’ll be surprised to learn that college football games last 12 minutes longer. On average, a college football game lasts 3 hours and 24 minutes — though they can last over 5 hours.
There are a lot of reasons why college football games last longer than NFL games, although they share the same quarter length (15 minutes), play clock length (40 seconds), and total game time (60 minutes).
For example, college football features marching bands at halftime that run the break up to 20 minutes — opposed to the NFL’s 12-minute break.
Most college football games are played on Saturday, but they also play throughout the week in certain scenarios. In addition to the longer halftime break, college football is known for briefly stopping the clock every time a team gets a first down.
While coaches can challenge, a majority of the replays come from the head ref. They can review any play they want, which can lead to a longer game.
The final concern with the length of college football games is the overtime period. Unlike the NFL, which supports a tie in certain scenarios, college football is designed to eliminate ties and eventually determine a winner. It’s certainly a fun way to end a game, but it can take forever.
Simply put, the overtime period starts with each team getting one possession starting from the opposing 25-yard line. There’s no game clock and every overtime period consists of one possession from each team. If the teams are tied after an overtime period, they start another one.
After the fifth overtime period (which used to be the third overtime period), the teams run two-point conversions instead of possessions from the 25-yard line. There have been five games in college football history that have gone into 7 overtime periods.
How Long Are High School Football Games?
If you don’t like how long an NFL or college football game lasts, you might enjoy watching your son or daughter play high school football more. These games usually last 2 hours, but they range anywhere from 1 hour and 45 minutes to 3 hours.
A large reason for the shorter length is due to the 12-minute quarters, which total 48 minutes of game time. Halftime usually lasts anywhere from 10-20 minutes.
Most games are played on Fridays and start around 7 pm, and end by 10 pm. While there are some high-profile high school football games televised on local or national television, it’s pretty rare.
With that being said, most high school games do not need commercial breaks, have limited or no replays, and feature a run-heavy attack.
How Long Are Pee Wee Football Games?
Pee-wee football games take the least amount of time, especially when compared to an NFL or college football game. They only last 1-2 hours and more than half of that is due to the warmup — which could last an hour in itself. They’re generally played on the weekends – not the weekdays.
A pee-wee football game usually features 8-minute quarters for 32-minutes of total game time. With just a 12-minute halftime, you can see why these games don’t take a long time. That’s not to say they’re not exciting, though!
Factors That Affect the Length of Football Games
The length of each game is something the NFL is continuously looking to improve. They’re always searching for new ways to speed up the game and keep it as exciting as possible for fans, but the normal flow of the game is always getting in the way of that.
The truth is there is a wide range of factors that affect the real length of a football game. The game clock might stop at 60, 48, or 40 minutes, but there’s a reason why games last several hours — even in the lower leagues.
Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent reasons:
Whenever a penalty is called, the referees huddle up and discuss the penalty. Then the referee has to make the call into the microphone. The play clock and game clock are stopped for all of this.
Teams are given three timeouts per half. When you total it up, there are a maximum of 12 timeouts possible in a football game. With each timeout taking about two minutes, that time adds up.
Pass vs Rush
The game clock stops after an incomplete pass, but not after a completed pass or a rushing play that stays in-bounds. Games that feature a lot of runs typically don’t take as long as games that feature a lot of passing (inaccurate passing).
The length of a football game could depend on how much of the play clock a team uses. In a fast-paced offense, there will be less standing around and more action. Towards the end of the game, the winning team usually tries to run out the clock, which speeds the game up.
Injuries take a while to sort out, especially if the player has difficulty getting off the field, but they also result in a charged timeout in most cases. The more injuries that happen in a game, the longer a game takes.
The overtime period is one of the main reasons why people record the show after the game, just in case the game is tied after regulation. Some overtime periods can last the entire length of another quarter, which means an increase of about 30 minutes.
Video replays are always a major complaint among fans. Coaches and referees call for replays and challenges far too often. Even when a play is clear to everyone at home and in the broadcast booth, the refs spend several minutes reviewing it.
Anyone who watches football understands that they’ll have to potentially sit through a long list of repeated commercials every time the game clock stops. It’s annoying and messes with the flow of the game, both for the players and fans.
While football players are notorious for playing in just about any weather imaginable, there are a few instances where games are delayed due to weather. Lightning is often the major concern with the NFL, with rain and snow being less of a threat.
Some football games are delayed as a result of technical difficulties inside the stadium. For example, there was a power outage during Super Bowl XLVII that delayed the game 34 minutes.
Pregame and Postgame
If you’re watching the game at home or attending the game in-person, you can save a lot of time by skipping the pregame and postgame activities that happen on the field and in the broadcast booth.
Much like the pregame and postgame activities, halftime is another time-consumer. This is apparent during big games such as the Super Bowl. Some leagues have a longer break, which could run up the length of a football game as well.
In addition to the factors listed above, the length of a football game is largely affected by the league you’re playing in.
For example, college football games (on average) last longer than an NFL football game, but high school and pee-wee football games don’t take as long.
Longest NFL Game in History
The NFL has been around for over 100 years. In that time, the league has witnessed some extremely long games — despite the strong effort to avoid these instances.
The longest game ever recorded was between the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans on Sept. 9, 2018. The Dolphins were hosting the Titans on a Sunday afternoon, but this wasn’t going to be your average afternoon in the NFL.
The game started just like every other game, but the issues started late in the second quarter. With 1:11 left in the half, the game was delayed due to lightning.
Normally a lightning delay lasts no longer than 30 minutes, but fans and players were asked to find shelter for 1 hour and 57 minutes — about the same length of a pee-wee football game.
The game continued and everything seemed fine until there was 6:47 left in the third quarter. Another lightning delay caused the game to be put on hold for another whopping 2 hours and 2 minutes.
Between the two delays, fans and players were standing around for almost 4 hours. That’s almost a full hour more than an average NFL game.
The Dolphins-Titans game ultimately started at 1:02 pm ET but didn’t end until 8:10 pm ET. Most afternoon games end by 4:30 pm ET and the evening games (which start around 4:15 pm ET) don’t end until around 8:00 pm ET. The Dolphins-Titans game outlasted all of them.
Once that game finally ended, fans were already gearing up for Sunday Night Football. Miami won the game 27-20 with each team scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter. It was a fun game to watch, once you got past the lightning delays.
Fastest NFL Game Ever Played
While some NFL football games take your entire Sunday away from you, other NFL football games do the opposite. Over the past 100 years, the NFL has seen several games dip below the three-hour mark, but one of them stands above the rest — the Chargers vs. the Colts in 1996.
The game only lasted 2 hours and 29 minutes when the San Diego Chargers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 26-19. The Chargers scored the only two touchdowns of the game, one in the first quarter and one in the fourth quarter. In the second and third quarters, both teams combined for 8 field goals.
Since then, there have been six other games that were completed rather quickly. The most recent was the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Washington Redskins in 2019. The game ended in 2 hours and 36 minutes with the 49ers winning 9-0.
The Titans beat the Colts in 2008 (2:33), the Buccaneers beat the Falcons in 2007 (2:34), and the Pittsburgh Steelers played in two games that each lasted 2 hours and 35 minutes.
While many people complain about NFL games taking too long, there are also instances of them finishing too quickly.
How Can the NFL Speed Up Games?
In 2017, the NFL started to take massive actions toward speeding the game up for fans watching at home and fans inside the stadiums. It’s been a major point of discussion ever since and they are actively searching for more ways every single year.
They’ve done a lot since then, but it hasn’t done much for the actual length of the games — which still take far too long.
Restructuring commercial breaks and removing what they called ‘double-ups’ (the two sets of commercials before and after kickoffs) helped, but not as much as fans were hoping.
They’ve also taken a look at video replays and in-game timing, but more work is needed. Video replays take too long and happen too often, even on plays that don’t need a long review.
In addition to that, the NFL could consider restructuring or eliminating the two-minute warnings, which were originally a way for the scoreboard operator to sync the time with the referees.
Reducing the play clock would help spark a sense of urgency in each play. Three timeouts per half are also excessive at times. Technology can play a large role in this as well.
The NFL still uses ‘chains’ when marking first downs — something that’s better done with lasers. Of course, advertising and commercials are the main things moving forward.
Cutting the amount of time spent with the broadcasters and on commercial breaks is the quickest way to gain back some valuable time.