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The differences between the NFL and CFL

Devin McCourty of the New England Partriots celebrates after an interception in his X2E+ Helmet

As we enter the doldrums of the sports calendar, those stagnant summer days where there’s nothing left to watch but midseason baseball, the itch for football content can become irresistible. Football players especially are not only wanting to strap it up and play, but they’re also craving to watch some real time game action.

For those of you seeking live football action before kickoff in August, however, look no further than the Canadian Football League (CFL), as mid-June serves as the season opener for teams across Canada.  If you do tune in, what you see may very well confuse you. In many ways, it will look and feel like American football; however, there are some significant differences between the NFL and CFL.

Below, we will provide a CFL primer so you can truly appreciate Canadian football for the electrifying sport that it is.

CFL Player from the Saskatchewan Roughriders before a football game

A player from the Saskatchewan Roughriders during pregame in his X2E+ Helmet


Differences Between the NFL and CFL


Although the two games resemble each other quite similarly, certain rule changes make the CFL game a faster, more dynamic game that usually leads to higher scores and bigger plays. On average NFL athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger, but the talent gap is still quite small between the two leagues.

That said, let us dive into the nitty-gritty of what differentiates the NFL and CFL.

A player from the Edmonton Eskimos wearing his X2E+ Helmet before a football game

A player from the Edmonton Eskimos looks to the sidelines during a CFL game in his X2E+ Helmet

The League

The CFL is composed of 9 teams as opposed to the NFL’s 32 teams. The reason for the lopsided number is that, in 2014, the Ottawa Redblacks were added as an expansion team. These 9 teams are grouped into the Eastern and Western Division.

Eastern Division

- Hamilton Tiger Cats
- Montreal Alouettes
- Ottawa Redblacks
- Toronto Argonauts

Western Division

- BC Lions
- Calgary Stampeders
- Edmonton Eskimos
- Saskatchewan Roughriders
- Winnipeg Blue Bombers


Since the creation of the professional CFL league in 1958, the most winning team in terms of Grey Cup wins—CFL’s Superbowl— is the Edmonton Eskimos. The reigning CFL champs are the Calgary Stampeders who defeated the Ottawa Redblacks 27-16 to claim the Grey Cup in 2018.

Unlike the NFL, the regular season is 18 weeks, with the season going from June to November. The smaller, 42-man rosters need to have at least 20 Canadians on each squad and are limited financially by having a much smaller salary cap of just $5.7 million per team. As such, very few star players make even the minimum salary of the NFL, and many backups and special teamers have other jobs in the offseason.


The Field

The CFL field is much larger and looks more like a Rugby or Aussie Rules pitch than an NFL field. It is 65 yards wide and 110 yards in length, with 20-yard-deep end zones, making it 150 yards in total. The deeper end zones make it easier for teams to score in the red zone, which tends to lead to higher scoring games. In addition, goal posts are placed on the goal line – as they used to be in the NFL– and can be used for pick plays.

A player from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats makes a play during a football game in his Xenith Epic+A CFL athlete makes a play in his Xenith helmet

The Rules

Where the NFL and CFL games really begin to differ significantly are the rules:

3 downs per 1stdown

Unlike the NFL, the CFL only gives a team 3 downs to move the chains. As a result, the CFL relies far more on downfield aerial attacks over pounding the rock. Naturally, this speeds up the play of the game and makes special teams a far more critical facet to the game. 

    The number of players on the field

    The NFL only has 11 players on the field at a time. This uneven number creates an interesting dynamic where there is a weakside and strongside to most every formation. The CFL, on the other hand, has 12 players on its larger field, which unfortunately, makes many CFL defensive schemes far more unoriginal due to the numerical parity.

      Unlimited motion

      Prior to the snap, CFL receivers do not have to be set at the line, so they usually get a head start by beginning 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage (LOS). They can begin their route so long as they do not cross the LOS before the center has begun his snap. This constant motion adds a fast-paced element and vertical variety that adds a degree of excitement to the game.The only significant drawback is that it prevents CBs from jamming WRs at the lines, which is one of the most effective ways for dealing with a superstar wide receiver in the NFL.

        Line of scrimmage

        In order to encourage the running game and make up for the lack of a fourth down, the neutral zone is much larger in the CFL. In the NFL, it is the width of the ball, whereas, in the CFL, the D-Line must line up 1 yard off of the line of scrimmage. Naturally, this larger scrimmage zone incentivizes teams to run more, especially on short yardage plays, since O-linemen have more space and time to set up blocks downfield.

          A shorter play clock

          In the NFL, teams have 40 seconds to snap the ball following the end of the previous play. In the CFL, teams have 20 seconds; however, when the clock starts depends on a variety of factors such as whether or not the ball carrier was tackled inbounds or out of bounds, or whether there was an incomplete pass. This and the lack of running also speed up the pace of play and prevent teams from simply running down the clock. 

            The 3-minute warning

            CFL has a 3-minute warning as opposed to a 2-minute warning. The 3-minute warning takes place at the end of each half and the clock stops after every single play. As a result, you might see multiple TDs in the final minutes of a game, which adds an element of excitement.


              Most agree that the overtime rules are one of the best elements of the CFL. Each team gets the ball on the opponents 35-yard line. The team that scores the most points during their first possession wins. If both sides score a TD or a FG, they get another shot at it. If this happens a second time with the game remaining even, this results in a tie.

                The Rouge

                This small rule has lead to some bizarre situations. In CFL, any kick that enters the end zone without exiting is considered a live ball unless there was a made field goal or if the kick hit the goalposts. If the receiving team fails to return it out the end zone, or if the kicking team kicks it out of the end zone, then the kicking team scores a point—i.e. the rouge, and the returning team begins at the 35-yard line. If the kick is returned out of the end zone, no point is given, and the receiving team gets to scrimmage from the place the ball reached on the return.

                  No Yards

                  The CFL does not allow for a Fair Catch play on a punt or kick. Instead, the receiving player needs to be granted a 5-yard cushion by the kicking team until he touched the ball or else the kicking team receives a “No Yards” penalty. This ensures player safety from massive collisions on returns while still emphasizing the importance of the return game.

                    Are You Ready for Some Football?

                    While there are some minor differences in penalties and rules, much of the gridiron game we love remains largely the same whether you are in Canada or the States. The CFL's larger field, 3-down play, continuous motion, and shorter play clocks add a fast-paced, exciting element to the game that football players may find refreshing. So, if you want your football fix as you wait for the preseason, look no further than the CFL.

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