A fictional pro football league finds themselves hit with a players’ strike with the season still needing to be finished. Washington Sentinels owner Edward O’Neil calls a former coach of his, Jimmy McGinty, telling McGinty that he and the rest of the teams are going to finish the final four games of the season with replacement players. O’Neil asks McGinty to coach the Sentinels the rest of the season, along with the pressure of winning three of the last four games to make the playoffs. McGinty accepts, on the condition that he will also be given the freedom to sign the players he wants with O’Neil not allowed to interfere.
With O’Neil accepting his requests, McGinty builds his team of different varying players that he believes can make a winning team. As his quarterback, McGinty chooses Shane Falco, a former All-American from Ohio State whose career went to pieces after a horrendous Sugar Bowl game, and now lives in a houseboat near the Sentinels’ stadium. Falco initially refuses, but McGinty convinces him, believing that Falco can still be the player he was meant to be. The replacement players are greeted to their first practice hostilely by the striking players, calling the replacements “scabs”, and throwing eggs at them, and Falco, who arrives late, gets his truck turned over. Head cheerleader Annabelle Ferrell, who has to find new cheerleaders since the originals apparently went on strike as well, reluctantly hires strippers when the other tryouts go terribly bad. After practice, Annabelle drives Falco home and surprises him with her vast football knowledge.
The replacements’ first game is against Detroit, and the team initially struggles to get along, causing the Sentinels to fall behind early. Falco tries to rally the team back, but on the last play, he panics when he sees a pending blitz and calls an audible, which falls short of the winning touchdown. McGinty berates Falco for what he did, telling him that “winners always want the ball when the game’s on the line.” At a local bar, several of the replacements lament over their loss, when several of the striking players, led by their prima donna quarterback Eddie Martel, arrive and taunt the replacements. When Falco stands up to Martel, a brawl follows, leading to the replacements being arrested, but they build a bond in the process, dancing together in their cell before McGinty bails them out. The dance that the players are doing to the song “I Will Survive” is actually the “Electric Slide”. Annabelle meets Shane the next day, having heard what happened, and tells him that he’s the first quarterback she’s seen in a long time be so selfless, and a connection starts to grow between the two of them.
The next day, when Shane arrives at the stadium for practice, he is, again confronted by Martel and the other players, this time for parking in another player’s parking space. Martel and his gang flip over Falco’s truck on its side, which they had done earlier for parking in Martel’s parking space. But, two of the replacement players, André and Jamal Jackson, who are also Shane’s bodyguards, force them to flip the truck back over anyway after Jamal shoots up Martel’s Porsche. In the Sentinels’ next game against San Diego, they fall behind again but are able to come together once again, and this time win, on a 65-yard field goal by their kicker, a Welsh soccer player named Nigel Gruff. Falco meets Annabelle again, where she runs a bar her father used to own and admits that she was raised with football. After sharing a short conversation and having a beer together, they consummate their feelings for one another, sharing a deep kiss. The Sentinels nearly lose their next game on the road against Phoenix, but win on a couple of improbable plays.
When the Sentinels return to D.C., O’Neil tells McGinty that Eddie Martel has crossed the picket line, and points out that the entire team of the league’s defending champions, and the Sentinels’ next opponent, Dallas, have crossed as well. O’Neil shows no confidence in Falco being able to beat Dallas, and hints to McGinty that he could be fired if McGinty refuses to start Martel. McGinty gives in and reluctantly tells Falco, who then tells his teammates the same thing, demoralizing the team. Falco is toasted by his teammates, but unable to face Annabelle after what happened, Falco leaves her stood up for their planned date.
In the first half of the final crucial game, Martel clashes severely with the replacement players, and also smugly ignores any play calls McGinty makes, causing the Sentinels fall behind to Dallas 17–0. The hometown fans, who had initially despised the replacements, now boo Martel, having accepted Falco as their favorite. On the way to the locker room for halftime, McGinty tells a TV reporter that the team needs “heart” to come back and win, something he had earlier said Falco had. Falco, watching this on television, returns to the stadium, and McGinty promptly benches Martel for Falco. Martel angrily tells Falco that he will never be known as anything but a replacement player. Falco says he can live with that and the rest of the team throws Martel out of the stadium. On his way back to the field, Falco finds Annabelle and apologizes to her, giving her another deep kiss in front of the crowd and other cheerleaders.
McGinty tells the replacements that the strike will officially end the next day, giving the players incentive to give everything they have left. The Sentinels rally back to a 17–14 score, with Gruff being called to kick the game-tying field goal late in the game. However, Gruff spots bookies that he owes money to in the crowd, and realizes that they want him to throw the game or they’ll take his pub from him as compensation. He reveals this to Falco just before the kick, and Falco pulls the ball away, causing Gruff to fall from the momentum of his kicking motion and break his arm. Falco initially scores the apparent winning touchdown, but it’s called back on a Sentinels penalty. With Gruff unable to continue, Falco tells McGinty that he “wants the ball”, affirming what McGinty had told him before. Falco calls for a deep pass to the replacements’ deaf tight end, Brian Murphy, and hits him with the game-winning touchdown pass as time expires, earning the Sentinels a playoff berth. Falco celebrates with Annabelle, while McGinty narrates that the replacement players left the field with nothing but the satisfaction and personal glory of what they’ve accomplished, which is living the athlete’s dream of a “second chance.” He then watches the replacements dance on the field to the Gloria Gaynor song “I Will Survive”.