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How to watch the NFL on the internet

It's not always easy, but there are many ways to watch NFL games without paying an arm and a leg to your cable or satellite TV provider. Here are your options.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

On any given Sunday in the United States, professional football is the most popular sport of all. There's only one problem. If you're a cord-cutter (someone who's left cable and satellite behind for internet television), you're going to find it difficult to watch America's favorite Sunday afternoon pastime. There are ways, however, you can still get your National Football League (NFL) fix.

The NFL offers many ways to watch some pro football online.

Some, but not all, of your local market games are available from over-the-air (OTA) stations. CBS and Fox continue to show Sunday afternoon games, while NBC shows the Sunday night game. In addition, seven Thursday night games will be broadcast on CBS. As usual, the traditional Thanksgiving Thursday night game will be aired on NBC. If you want to record those games for later viewing, you can pick from a variety of OTA DVRs, such as the TiVo Roamio, Nuvyyo Tablo, and Channel Master DVR+.

Unfortunately, the FCC's blackout rules are still in effect. That means if your local team doesn't sell 85 percent of its stadium's tickets within 72 hours of the game's start, the game won't be shown in its local area.

And, of course, if you're a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan who lives in San Diego, you'd better hope the Steelers play well and get lots of national TV games or you won't be seeing them very often. OTA is great and it's free, but it only goes so far for a serious football fan. 

Monday Night Football belongs to ESPN. While ESPN does have an internet streaming service, WatchESPN, it's only available to fans who receive ESPN as part of their cable or satellite TV subscription and their TV provider supports it. Not all providers do. For example, DirecTV, with its own NFL Sunday Ticket offering, doesn't support it.

Sunday night football games, which is broadcast by NBC, can be watched on the NBC Sports livestream site. Unlike ESPN's streaming, there's no restrictions on who can watch these games. 

That still leaves a lot of football you can't get to OTA or on the Intennet, so, what is a pro football, cord-cutting fan to do?

Well, if you just want to watch the highlights, there's the just-launched NFL Now. This new free internet service offers game updates plus football and fantasy football analysis shows, and older NFL shows such as In their own Words and Hard Knocks. There's also a paid option, NFL Now Plus. For $1.99 a month, you get more up-to-date highlights from in-progress games and access to on-demand archives of NFL Network and NFL Films programming.

NFL Now is available not just on the web but via the most popular internet TV devices such as Roku, Apple TV, Microsoft Xbox and Amazon Fire TV. It's also available as an app on Android, Apple iOS and Windows smartphones and tablets.

If you want more than highlights and hours of analysis, the NFL also offers Game Rewind internet packages. With these you can watch replays of all NFL games after they've been played, and access archives of all games going back to 2009. Pricing for Game Rewind includes one week for $10, full-game replays of your favorite team's regular season games for $30, full-game replays of every NFL game all season long for $40, and the top package, which includes all the above and all playoff games for $70. This service is only available via the web and on iPads and Android and Windows tablets. There is no version for smartphones at this time.

Another option, if you get excellent Verizon 4G in your neighborhood, is Verzion's NFL Mobile with Live Games. This package lets you watch live Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights NFL games; live regional Sunday afternoon games and access to the NFL Network.

A gray area to access all NFL games is to subscribe to the NFL's GamePass. This gives you live access to all NFL games. Before you start the tailgate party in your driveway, however, be aware that it's not available to US and Mexican football fans.

So, what's a fan to do? Use a virtual private network (VPN) or web proxy service to make it appear that you're watching from Canada, the United Kingdom, or some other place where you can legally subscribe to the service. The price varies according to country. From the UK, for example, GamePass for a single team is £80, just over $130 American, and the entire season plus the playoffs will run you £120, approximately $196.

I use these services all the time to watch British TV shows, such as those available on BBC iPlayer and ITV. Amusingly enough, you can also use them to watch blocked American TV from the United States.

The costs for these services vary from $5 to $20 a month. I've found that the following services work well: Invisible Browsing VPN, Banana VPN, BlackLogic, StrongVPN, and ZenMate. Most of these will work with Macs and Linux and Windows PCs, and some of them also offer services for mobile devices.

You may have noticed that all the ways I recommend to watch football, other than OTA, are still going to cost you money. That's true. On the other hand, I can watch a full football season using the most expensive option, VPN and NFL's GamePass, for about $300, while my local cable company would charge me $500 for fewer games and a lot of channels I'll never, ever watch. I know which option I prefer.

Enjoy the season, and go Steelers!

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