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In NFL postseason overtime, the game should stay the same

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Let’s get this out of the way right now: this isn’t about a writer on a Kansas City Chiefs website being ticked off that his favorite team lost an overtime game without having a chance to possess the ball.

Well… maybe it is a little bit. But bear with me.

Before 1974, regular-season games that were tied when the final gun sounded remained… well, tied. While the NFL and AFL were being run as separate leagues, nobody seemed to care. Ties were just a fact of life. But once the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, tradition didn’t seem to matter as much. The newly-merged league was willing to tinker with the game.

So in 1974, the NFL added sudden-death overtime to regular-season games, so that there wouldn’t be any more of those pesky ties.

The ties went away. Well… almost.

On September 22, 1974, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos were tied at the end of the fourth quarter, and the new sudden-death overtime rules were tried for the first time. Neither team could score during the overtime period, and the game ended in a 35-35 tie. But it would be the only tie of the year; in the four seasons since the merger, the league averaged seven ties.

In 25 of the 45 NFL seasons since overtime was added to regular season games, a season ended without a single tie. In three — 1986, 1997, 2016 and 2018 — there were just two. All the rest had only one.

But fans still weren’t happy. Too often, a team that won the overtime coin toss would march down the field close enough for a field goal, and then kick one. Game over.

“No fair!” cried the fans of the losing teams. “Games are being decided by a coin toss!” And they had a point: it was just too easy to drive into field goal range and put three points on the board to win.

So the NFL amended the overtime rules. Henceforth, both teams would have the chance to possess the ball at least once — unless the first team to possess the ball scored a touchdown on their first drive, or the team that didn’t receive the overtime kickoff scored a defensive touchdown on the opening overtime drive. But if the team that didn’t receive the opening overtime kickoff kicked a field goal after the team that did receive the opening kickoff didn’t score on their first drive, then the team that didn’t receive the opening kickoff would win the game. But if neither team could score by the end of the 10-minute overtime period, then the game would end in a tie.

It’s no wonder that the officials have trouble explaining this arrangement to the team captains before the overtime coin toss. Every time, they explain it as if they aren’t quite sure how it works, either. I always expect one of the players to raise a hand, ask a question, and stump the official.

But even as balky and strange as these rules are, I can live with them in the regular season. There are legitimate reasons for a tie game in the regular season to be settled quickly — and whatever else is true about the current overtime format, it does do that. If overtime games run too long, TV schedules get messed up, players are subjected to unnecessary risk of injury and so on.

After all, back in 1974 — after the first regular-season overtime game in NFL history — Steelers head coach Chuck Noll said, “I have a tired football team that has to get ready for a football game next week. If we’d have one of these every week, it’d kill our team.”

But playoff games are another matter entirely. By definition, they cannot end in a tie, and everything is on the line. So as fans of the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints and Rams learned on Sunday, the rules are waaaay different: the overtime period is extended to a whole 15 minutes.

Uhhh… whaaat?

Don’t get me wrong: The Patriots and Rams are in the Super Bowl fair and square. They won the games under the rules that now stand.

But existing overtime rules — which are perfectly fine when all that is at stake is a half-game in the standings — are insufficient in a single-elimination tournament. When an entire season is on the line, it just doesn’t seem right for a coin toss to hold that much sway.

Based on the way they played in the fourth quarter, is there any fan who would have bet against the Chiefs winning the game if they had won the coin toss? Or against the Patriots because they did win it? Based on the way both teams played in the fourth quarter, is there any fan who didn’t want to see the Chiefs come back on the field to answer the Patriots’ overtime drive?

Nate Scott of USA Today’s For The Win voices a similar sentiment:

Patrick Mahomes, who’d gone toe-to-toe with the greatest coach and greatest QB of all time, didn’t get to touch the football. His team lost the toss, his defense gave up a touchdown, and that was it.

For a casual fan, it felt like being cheated. Even for a Patriots fan — which, yes, I grew up in New England — it felt like being cheated. We wanted more football.

At The Sporting News, Mike DeCourcey speaks of the “absurdity of the NFL’s overtime rule.”

It’s preposterous. In fact, because the Chiefs were the home team — a designation earned by achieving the best regular-season record of any team in the conference — they didn’t even get to call the coin toss. The visiting squad gets that honor, just because.

So the Patriots were empowered because they were worse.

No other sport decides its championship in this manner. In fact, no one else in football does this.

The Kansas City Star’s Vahe Gregorian pulls out an impressive array of adjectives to express his outrage.

What shouldn’t be accepted going forward, though, is the illogical, unfair, unsatisfying and arbitrary premise this incredible game ultimately came down to: the flawed structure of overtime.

After a mesmerizing 60 minutes, which included the Chiefs coming back from a 14-0 deficit and four lead changes in the fourth quarter before Harrison Butker tied it with a field goal from 39 yards out with 8 seconds left, it’s absurd and downright brutal that a whimsical coin toss was so fundamental in the final result.

Across the country — not just in Kansas City — pundits are calling for a change. And oddsmakers are already taking bets on whether or not the rules will change for 2019.

In SBNation’s regular reminder that college overtime rules would improve the NFL playoffs, Jason Kirk says that college overtime rules — while not perfect — are at least fair.

Per college overtime rules, Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs would’ve had a chance to equalize or top the Patriots’ initial score, which would’ve meant a game between two teams would’ve been decided by both full teams, rather than one offense lucking into a favorable matchup by winning the toss. Tweak the rules however you like beyond that — maybe you’d choose to scoot NFL offenses back to the other 25-yard line, which would be totally up to you — but that’s the central contention.

Over at The Daily Norseman — our sister SBNation site covering the Minnesota VikingsTed Glover proposes a variation of the college overtime format.

I would adopt the current NCAA overtime rules, but with two modifications:

1. Teams start at the opponent’s 40-yard line. The NFL has been trying to eliminate kickoffs and kickoff returns in recent years, so this continues down that road. If the offense can’t get a first down, a field goal attempt would be anywhere from a 48 to 57-yard attempt, assuming they didn’t lose any yardage on the possession.

2. Teams must go for two starting with the first overtime.

I think there’s a lot of merit to an idea similar to the collegiate format. It’s easy to understand, entertaining and fast. Both teams get to put their offenses and defenses on the field. Even special teams can play a role. For determining a half-game shift in the standings — that is, in the regular season — I think something like the collegiate overtime setup would be great.

But in a single-elimination tournament? No, thanks. Would it be OK for a tie at the end of a March Madness game to be decided by a game of H-O-R-S-E?

In Sports Illustrated’s MMQB Podcast, Gary Gramling argues that in the playoffs, all three phases should come into play for both teams.

The NFL used to do different overtime rules in playoffs vs. regular season, and I’d be totally fine going back to the split because it’s better than what we have now. You have to have it so each [team] gets a possession. You should have to play offense, defense and special teams in overtime to win.

And finally… there’s an idea I can get behind. In the postseason — when the loser has to go home for good — they should play the same game they started 60 minutes ago.

Flip a coin. The team that wins the toss can choose to kick off or receive — and under this setup, they might choose to do either. Each team gets two timeouts. A full 15-minute period is played under normal rules, with normal two-minute rules at the end of the period. If one team is ahead at the end, the game is over.

But if the game is still tied at the end of that period, the teams swap ends — just as they do after the first and third quarters — and keep playing additional periods until one team takes the lead; the only change is that after the first overtime period, it’s two-minute rules and sudden death.

If a game is decided under such a format, no one could claim that the overtime format was to blame — or gave a particular team an advantage — because it’s hardly different than a normal game. If you can’t win such a game, you didn’t deserve to win it in the first place.

And it sure would be nice to write (or read) about an epic game where two great teams exchanged blows for an extra quarter to decide the winner — rather than yet another article about how the NFL needs to fix yet another problem of its own making.

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