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The same question has been rattling around the football world for years now – are the current NFL playoff overtime rules fair to both teams?
Most of the time (on average) the answer is yes.
But as Kansas City Chiefs fans who saw the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots end in overtime without Patrick Mahomes ever touching the ball will tell you, when the answer is no it really hurts like hell.
Like most questionable situations, there are two sides to this one, so we’re going to dig a little deeper and answer some of the basic questions about the NFL overtime rules, and then give you the actual odds on whether the league will change them for 2019.
Overtime is what happens in football when at the end of the 60-minute game the score is tied.
The team’s kicker is inevitably the reason overtime happens, since at the end of the fourth quarter of play, a team will often kick a field goal or an extra-point to tie or win the game.
Whether the placekicker makes or misses his attempt either ends the game or gives his team another shot to win.
Between 1920 and 1973, there were approximately 256 tied games in the NFL, an average of almost five per season.
So in order to reduce that number, in 1974 the NFL introduced a single sudden death overtime period for all games that ended up in a tie at the end of regulation play.
And it worked – between 1974 and 2011 there were just 17 ties, less than half a tie per season.
Once the overtime period was shortened in 2017 to reduce the risk of injuries, (see below), there have been two ties, both in the 2018 season.
The overtime rules during the NFL’s regular season allow for one extra ten-minute period of play that ends in a tie if a winner isn’t declared.
The overtime starts with a coin toss to determine possession, the visiting team’s captain being the player who gets to call heads or tails.
A team will win the game if it scores a touchdown on the first possession of overtime, but if a field goal is scored, the other team gets the ball and the game begins as sudden death, meaning the next score wins it.
They’ve been tweaking the overtime rules for a while now, with one major change happening in 2012.
Up until March of that year, NFL overtime started out as a sudden death situation, so the first team to score would win, even if that was just a field goal.
Then that rule was changed in 2012 to give the other team a chance to score if the coin toss winner could only score a field goal.
Then in 2017, in an attempt to lessen the number of injuries that were occurring at the end of games when players were the most exhausted, the rules were changed again, this time reducing the length of the overtime period in the regular season from 15 minutes to just 10.
The biggest difference is in the length of the overtime period.
In the regular season, that lasts just ten minutes, while in the playoffs, teams are given a fifteen minute overtime period.
Since there can be no ties in the playoffs, another way the postseason rules differ is that if at the end of the fifteen minute overtime period the score is still tied, another fifteen minute overtime period is played as a sudden death, first to score wins.
Quite a bit different, actually.
In college football overtime, each team gets a chance with the ball, but they get to start at their opponent’s 25-yardline.
If the score is still tied after each team has had a chance with the ball, then each is given another chance to score at their opponent’s 25-yardline.
Starting in the third period, teams can no longer kick for extra points and have to go for two after touchdowns in order to help put a quicker end to the game.
Most of the time overtime ends up working out fairly, with both teams getting a chance to score and the best team coming out on top in the end.
Perfect example – when the NFC Championship game went to overtime this postseason, the New Orleans Saints won the coin toss but failed to score on their opening drive, and when the Los Angeles Rams got the ball they moved the ball down the field and kicked a game-winning field goal.
But like a lot of rules that work well often, the times the overtime rules do fail stand out because the unfairness of it goes against everything sportsmanship is supposed to stand for.
Typically what happens is the team who wins the overtime coin toss gets the ball first and marches down the field, scores a touchdown and wins the game outright.
It feels like a failure because in that situation, the other team doesn’t even get to touch the ball.
When that happens in an offensive-centric league like the NFL, a lot of what-ifs and woulda-coulda-shoulda’s get tossed around by disgruntled fans who understandably would have liked to see their quarterback and offense at least get a chance to score.
Often enough, otherwise the cries for change wouldn’t happen so frequently or be so loud.
Here are four major times the overtime rules seemed to fail, all of them happening within the last five seasons.
It’s interesting how the Patriots have benefited twice from winning the overtime coin toss, whereas the Packers have been bitten hard in overtime two seasons in a row by a losing toss of the coin.
Patriots win the coin toss and drive down the field 75 yards in 13 plays to score the game winning touchdown.
Meanwhile, the television cameras kept giving fans at home close-ups of the Chiefs’ quarterback, young phenom Patrick Mahomes, who stood helplessly watching from the sidelines.
That didn’t seem like a fair way to end the Chiefs’ stellar 2018 season.
Patriots win the coin toss and drive down the field 75 yards to score the game winning touchdown.
Meanwhile, the television cameras kept giving fans at home close-ups of the Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan, who had to stand helplessly watching from the sidelines.
That didn’t seem like a fair way to end a game that the Falcons led by 17 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Cardinals win the coin toss and drive down the field 79 yards to score the game winning touchdown.
Meanwhile, the television cameras kept giving fans at home close-ups of the Packers’ veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had to stand helplessly watching from the sidelines.
That didn’t seem like a fair way to end the game, especially given what had just happened the season before.
Hint – it was the exact same thing:
Seahawks win the coin toss and drive down the field 75 yards to score the game winning touchdown.
Meanwhile, there is Aaron Rodgers, able to nothing from his spot on the sidelines.
When the victory comes down to whoever wins the coin toss, it just doesn’t feel like a fair way to end any team’s hard fought season of professional football.
Some have argued for that, saying it would be fairer to give each team an equal chance to score.
But the argument against that points out that giving a professional football team the ball so close to the Red Zone without them having to earn it doesn’t seem very fair, either.
One of the biggest concerns is the potential for injury, and forcing two tired teams at the end of a game to hammer into each other repeatedly seems like a recipe for torn ACL’s and hamstrings and worse.
There are plusses and minuses to the current system, but the main beef with it comes mostly when a game seems to come down to a coin flip.
Giving each quarterback a chance to be on the overtime field seems like a simple solution.
Game length is a factor in the regular season, but there won’t be very many complaints about how long the game took when it’s an overtime battle in the playoffs.
Just as disgruntled Saints fans called for NFL commissioner to schedule a do-over game after the infamous no-call that sent their NFC Championship game into overtime, plenty of unhappy Chiefs fans are calling for a rule change to happen by next season.
But the odds of that happening don’t look good.
As of January, here are the odds an online gambling site posted for that to happen:
Of course, there’s always a chance for an overtime rule change to happen – it did in 2012 and 2017, after all – but when it comes to Roger Goodell and his NFL, don’t bet on it.
Mike Lukas is a retired standup comedian turned freelance writer now living in Dallas, Texas, originally from Cleveland, Ohio. His love for the game of football and all things Cleveland Browns turned Mike into a pro blogger years ago. Now Mike enjoys writing about all thirty-two NFL teams, hoping to help football gamblers gain a slight edge in their pursuit of the perfect wager. Email: [email protected]More info on Mike Lukas
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