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Football 101: The ‘Downton Abbey’ Guide To The Super Bowl


Super Bowl weekend is upon us. There will be much talk of football as we engage in this annual national ritual of carb-loading, commercialism, camaraderie, and possible concussion. I like football. I also have many friends who don’t care for it or understand it, but I’m glad they attend the parties!

The question is how to make sure those friends who don’t care for football have a good time. A healthy supply of Velveeta and IPA go a long way, but after consulting this Venn diagram, I decided I should make a guide. I bet the “Jeopardy” guys are in this circle and could have won a lot more money if they’d read this simple guide.

Basic Game Play

At the beginning of the game, a coin flip determines possession of the ball. The team that gets the ball goes on offense. While on offense, the team gets four chances to move the ball 10 yards or more as the team on defense tries to stop them. These chances are called downs.

Downs = Lady Edith’s attempts at love

If they move 10 yards, they earn another four downs.

After three unsuccessful tries at 10 yards, a team will usually elect to use its fourth try to punt the ball (or kick a field goal, see below). Punting is generally a disappointing and unglamorous admission of failure that nonetheless allows our somewhat demoralized team to play another day, no matter how fruitless. Lady Edith later finally converts a possession to a scoring play, so to speak, with Bertie Pelham. Huzzah!

Scoring Plays

Yes, they’re all sex- and marriage-related. Because patriarchy, y’all. It’s “Downton.” Deal.

Touchdown = Marriage

In football, a touchdown happens when the offense advances the ball all the way down the field using its downs, and by either passing the ball or running, gets the ball into the end zone. A touchdown is worth 6 points, and is the object of much strategy by the entire team.

On “Downton,” the focus of much of the characters’ lives is a suitable marriage, on which hangs the fate of entire families, great fortunes, and the plot of the whole show.

Field Goal = Proposal

In football, a field goal is performed by a kicker, who attempts to kick the football through the field goal posts from a distance of usually 20-50 yards. A field goal is worth 3 points.

On “Downton,” the proposal is less valuable and less firm than a marriage, but is nonetheless seen as a valuable step forward. Proposals are also frequently undertaken without success, nor are they a guarantee of later scoring a marriage. Welcome to the Red Zone.

Red Zone = Engagement Period

In football, this is the last 20 yards before the end zone. In this area, there is a sense of impending success, as teams try for a touchdown, but also increased pressure and peril and increased scrutiny for failing to reach the ultimate goal. So, engagement.

Extra Point and Two-Point Conversion = Heirs

A football team is afforded two different ways to add points to its total immediately after a touchdown. The far more common of those methods is the Extra Point or PAT (point after touchdown), a very short-range field goal kick worth 1 point, bringing the scoring tally to a total of 7.

The rarer and more lucrative play (worth 2 points, bringing the total to 8) is a two-point conversion in which the offense runs a play, and the team tries to run or pass the ball into the end zone again.

On “Downton,” a couple is afforded two different ways to add to its marital worth post-wedding. In the world of “Downton,” one is more common and less valuable than the other.

Yes, I went there. Female heirs are plentiful and worth less in the world of “Downton,” in a literal, material way. Look, I didn’t make the rules. I’ve known the entail system was B.S. since I started reading Jane Austen.

Behold, a two-point conversion. Infuriating but true to “Downton.” No wonder Mary wanted to kick Matthew’s rear when she met him.

Safety = Jimmy getting down with the upper class

In football, a safety is a rare scoring play worth 2 points, which happens when a defensive player tackles an offensive player in his own end zone.

At Downton, Jimmy was found in the wrong endzone, upstairs with Lady Anstruthers, during the fire in Season 5. The penalty is dismissal.


Audible = Mr. Lang substituting as footman in wartime though he’s trained as a valet

In football, an audible happens when the quarterback makes a change to the play he has called at the last second. It usually happens because the quarterback anticipates the defense’s play and wishes to stymie them.

At Downton during wartime, Mr. Carson has to call audibles as able-bodied footmen go to war, leaving him with limited options, such as the shell-shocked Mr. Lang. Trained as a valet, Lang could not fulfill these duties properly, which led to a fumble of the night’s gravy onto Lady Edith’s dress.

Chop Block/Face Mask/Horse Collar (Personal Fouls):

In football, a personal foul is when a player violates the rules of the game in a flagrant or potentially dangerous manner. This penalty is one of the game’s most costly, with 15 yards given to the victimized team.

At Downton, a personal foul is pretty much anything undertaken by O’Brien and Barrow. In Season One, O’Brien causes Lady Crawley’s miscarriage by engineering a fall on a bar of soap.

False Start:

A false start is a penalty of five yards given to the offense when it is found to have moved before the official beginning of the play—the snap of the ball.

On “Downton,” Lady Mary and Lord Tony Gillingham indulge in a week of false starting before marriage and are found out by the Dowager Countess.

Fair Catch:

In football, the man receiving a kick (punt or kick-off) can wave his hands above his head, signaling that he will not run with the ball once caught, and the defense must then refrain from touching him.

On “Downton,” Mr. Charles Blake executes a perfect fair catch when he gracefully concedes that Mary has chosen Lord Tony Gillingham over him, resigning himself to stand aside.

Hail Mary = Tom proposing to Sybil

In football, a Hail Mary is usually an extremely long pass thrown by the quarterback, often near the end of the game, when his team needs a touchdown as the clock winds down. Its success is unlikely, and a completion exhilarating if it succeeds.

On “Downton,” the unlikely courtship of Lady Sybil by Tom Branson, the family’s socialist chauffeur, ends in a Hail Mary, as he invites her to elope with him and she accepts, later marrying him with the Crawleys’ grudging blessing.

Incompletion = The romance of Lady Mary and Mr. Pamuk

In football, an incompletion occurs when the quarterback passes the ball to a receiver in an attempt to gain yards, but the receiver does not complete the pass.

On “Downton,” the dashing, ill-fated Mr. Pamuk famously croaked before completing his offensive play with Lady Mary.

Ineligible Receiver:

In football, only certain players, in certain positions or designated by teams to the referees in special circumstances, can legally catch a pass.

On “Downton,” poor Mr. Pamuk had not begun a courtship of Mary or proposed or married her, making Mary an ineligible receiver of his advances, subject to harsh social punishment had she been caught.

Intentional Grounding = Thomas’ war injury

In football, a penalty is assessed when a quarterback is about to get tackled (or sacked, see below), if he passes the ball where there is no player to catch it in an attempt to avoid being tackled.

On “Downton,” Thomas Barrow intentionally injures himself to evade the possibility of greater injury or death in battle during the war.

Interception = The affair of the note in London

In football, an interception occurs when a member of the defense catches a pass from the quarterback meant for a member of the offense.

On “Downton,” during Lady Rose’s coming out in London, a dishonorable card cheat intercepts a love note meant for Prince Edward of England that might bring scandal upon the monarchy. The Downton crew goes about intercepting the note again, with Bates snatching it from the miscreant’s overcoat.

Play-action Fake = Lady Rosamund’s romance

In the play-action fake, a quarterback pretends to hand the ball off to a running back while keeping the ball to pass it to a receiver.

At Downton, you’ll remember a similar bit of trickery in which Lady Rosamund seems to be pursued by a Lord Hepworth only to catch him in a romantic embrace with her lady’s maid. The two of them had been scheming to be together, using Hepworth’s pursuit of Rosamund as a decoy.

Quarterbacks = Mr. Carson & Mrs. Hughes

In football, the quarterback is the offensive leader of the team. He calls plays, throws the ball to receivers, or hands it off to running backs in an attempt to gain 10 yards or more.

At Downton, Mr. Carson is the quarterback of the male servants while Mrs. Hughes is the quarterback for the ladies’ maids.

Sack = Lord Grantham vs. Miss Bunting

In football, a sack is a play in which a defensive player tackles the opposing team’s quarterback, sending him backwards in his quest to gain 10 yards or more.

At Downton, such a play can be observed when Miss Bunting delivers a particularly harsh rhetorical blow to Lord Grantham on his home turf, making Grantham understandably angry.

Two-Minute Warning = Downton Dressing Gong

In football, this warning is given at the end of the first and second halves of the game. After this warning, it becomes much harder to stop the game clock, therefore increasing urgency for a trailing team to run plays or regain possession of the ball.

At Downton, imagine the ringing of the Dressing Gong, which signifies an hour to dress before dinner. The clock is running on poor Anna, Bates and Co. to get the family in their finery before the dinner hour strikes.

How you feel when your team wins the Super Bowl:

How you feel when your team loses the Super Bowl:

League Commissioner:

Enjoy the game, everyone!

This article is reprinted from