A Quick Guide to the NFL’s New Playoff Overtime Rules

Share

With the decision of the NFL owners to call a vote on the new proposed rules for overtime periods in the playoffs, a new era of playoff competition has begun.  Sure, the NFL coaches are miffed that the owners voted without them, and there is an outside chance that the NFL Player’s Union will take exception to not being involved in the process of approving these new rules, but from a fan’s standpoint it is difficult to find much fault with the move to change these rules.  There are also rumblings that the owners might consider the prospect of applying these playoff overtime rules to the regular season as well when discussions continue in a few months, so it is an exciting time to be involved in the day-to-day news coming out of the NFL.

That said, it can be difficult to understand the nuances of the new playoff overtime rules.  As a service to my fellow NFL fans–and some NFL players who have expressed confusion about the new rules through Twitter–I wanted to break down all of the potential scenarios that could occur under the new playoff overtime rules.

Before getting into the new playoff overtime rules, it is important to understand what the previous set of rules entailed.  Here’s a quick run-down:

  • The overtime period begins with the visiting team calling heads or tails on a coin flip; winner of the toss chooses to receive the ball or kickoff to the opposing team.
  • The first team to score any points in the overtime period–whether a touchdown, field goal, or safety–wins the game in sudden death fashion, even if only one team had possession in the period.
  • If the 15-minute overtime period runs out with neither team scoring points, another 15-minute overtime period will be played.  This will continue until one team scores points.

The main objection to this set of rules–and the impetus for voting on amendments to those rules to be instituted next season in the playoffs–is that far too often, the team that wins the coin flip and receives the ball is able to quickly move into field goal range and win by 3 points.  Kickers in the NFL have become so proficient in recent years that the field goal has become the scoring method of choice in overtime periods.

This said, however, it is interesting to note that of the two playoff games that went to overtime this past season, one was won by the team who received and one was one by the team who had to kick the ball away.  In the NFC Wild Card Weekend match-up between the Arizona Cardinals and the Green Bay Packers, the Packers won the coin flip and chose to receive the ball.  On the Packers first possession of the overtime period, Karlos Dansby returned an Aaron Rodgers fumble for a defensive touchdown to win the game, proving that the team that kicks off is not automatically doomed to lose.  In the NFC Conference Championship game, however, the Minnesota Vikings lost the coin flip and had to kick off to the New Orleans Saints; after a short drive assisted by some untimely Viking penalties, Garrett Hartley put a 40-yard field goal attempt through the uprights to send the Saints to Super Bowl XLIV on their first offensive posssession of overtime.

Under the new playoff overtime rules, the Packers-Cardinals game would’ve been over while the Vikings-Saints game would’ve continued on.

The reason for this is that, under the new playoff overtime rules, if a team wins the coin flip (which is still used to decide who chooses possession) receives the ball in overtime and kicks a field goal on their first possession, the opposing team has the ball kicked to them and they then have an opportunity for an offensive possession.  If they score a field goal, the game is tied  and the next team to score any kind of points is the winner in a sudden death format.  However, if a team receives the ball in overtime and scores a touchdown on their first possession, the game is over and the team scoring the touchdown wins the game.

These rules are put in place to attempt to give each team involved in the game an opportunity to have a possession in the overtime period.  Defensive touchdowns on the first series of overtime would also end the game, which is why the Packers-Cardinals overtime game would not be affected by the new rules voted into place.  However, the NFC Conference Championship would’ve seen the Saints kicking the ball to the Vikings with a 3-point lead, allowing the Vikings an offensive possession to try to tie or win the game.

Those are the basics of the new playoff overtime rules.  There are, however, some tricky parts of the new system.  I’ll be presenting these situations case-by-case, and explaining what would happen in the game based on the newly-instituted policies.

In the situational examples to follow, Team A is the team that wins the coin flip and makes the decision at the start of the overtime period to kick the ball or receive it.

When Team A elects to kick the ball off to Team B…

A.) Team A tries an onside kick to begin the overtime period and they successfully recover the ball.  Result of Situation: Team A has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.  This is because the lost onside kick is counted as Team B’s opportunity to have an offensive possession in overtime, despite the fact that they lost the ball.

B.) Team A kicks off normally to Team B and the kick returner for Team B fumbles the ball away to a special teams player on Team A.  Result of Situation: Team A has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.  This is because the lost fumble on the kickoff return is counted as Team B’s opportunity to have an offensive possession in overtime.

C.) Team A kicks off normally to Team B and the kick returner for Team B returns the kick for a touchdown.  Result of Situation: Team B wins the game.

D.) Team A kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team B.  Team B has possession of the ball and scores a field goal on their offensive possession.  Result of Situation: Team B has to kick off to Team A and Team A has one offensive possession to either tie the score with a field goal or win the game with a touchdown.  If Team A only scores a field goal, they must kick off to Team B and the next team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.  If Team A fails to score any points on their offensive possession, turns the ball over on downs or by fumble/interception, or if Team B scores a safety or defensive touchdown, Team B wins the game.

E.) Team A kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team B.  Team B has possession of the ball and scores a touchdown on their offensive possession.  Result of Situation: Team B wins the game.

F.) Team A kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team B.  Team B fumbles the ball away to Team A or throws an interception to Team A on their first offensive possession.  Result of Situation: Team A has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.

G.) Team A kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team B.  Team B fumbles the ball away to Team A or throws an interception to Team A on their first offensive possession and Team A returns the ball for a touchdown.  Result of Situation: Team A wins the game.

H.) Team A kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team B.  Team B fumbles the ball away to Team A or throws an interception to Team A on their first offensive possession; in the process of returning the fumble or interception, the player on Team A fumbles the ball and Team B recovers.  Result of Situation: Team B has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.  This is because Team A’s lost fumble counts as their opportunity to have an offensive possession in overtime.

I.) Team A kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team B.  Team B is forced to punt the ball to Team A or turns the ball over on downs to Team A on their first offensive possession.  Result of Situation: Team A has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.

J.) Team A kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team B.  Team B is tackled in their own end zone during their first offensive possession by a member of Team A for a safety.  Result of Situation: Team A wins the game.

When Team A elects to receive the kick off from Team B…

A.) Team B tries an onside kick to begin the overtime period and they successfully recover the ball.  Result of Situation: Team B has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.  This is because the lost onside kick is counted as Team A’s opportunity to have an offensive possession in overtime, despite the fact that they lost the ball.

B.) Team B kicks off normally to Team A and the kick returner for Team A fumbles the ball away to a special teams player on Team B.  Result of Situation: Team B has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.  This is because the lost fumble on the kickoff return is counted as Team A’s opportunity to have an offensive possession in overtime.

C.) Team B kicks off normally to Team A and the kick returner for Team A returns the kick for a touchdown.  Result of Situation: Team A wins the game.

D.) Team B kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team A.  Team A has possession of the ball and scores a field goal on their offensive possession.  Result of Situation: Team A has to kick off to Team B and Team B has one offensive possession to either tie the score with a field goal or win the game with a touchdown.  If Team B only scores a field goal, they must kick off to Team A and the next team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.  If Team B fails to score any points on their offensive possession, turns the ball over on downs or by fumble/interception, or if Team A scores a safety or defensive touchdown, Team A wins the game.

E.) Team B kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team A.  Team A has possession of the ball and scores a touchdown on their offensive possession.  Result of Situation: Team A wins the game.

F.) Team B kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team A.  Team A fumbles the ball away to Team B or throws an interception to Team B on their first offensive possession.  Result of Situation: Team B has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.

G.) Team B kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team A.  Team A fumbles the ball away to Team B or throws an interception to Team B on their first offensive possession and Team B returns the ball for a touchdown.  Result of Situation: Team B wins the game.

H.) Team B kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team A.  Team A fumbles the ball away to Team B or throws an interception to Team B on their first offensive possession; in the process of returning the fumble or interception, the player on Team B fumbles the ball and Team A recovers.  Result of Situation: Team A has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.  This is because Team B’s lost fumble counts as their opportunity to have an offensive possession in overtime.

I.) Team B kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team A.  Team A is forced to punt the ball to Team B or turns the ball over on downs to Team B on their first offensive possession.  Result of Situation: Team B has possession of the ball and the first team to score any points in overtime wins the game in sudden death format.

J.) Team B kicks off and the ball is successfully returned by Team A.  Team A is tackled in their own end zone during their first offensive possession by a member of Team B for a safety.  Result of Situation: Team B wins the game.

Obviously the rules are not as simple as the old rules that basically said whoever scores first wins the game, but the NFL owners clearly believe–with a 28-4 margin in voting on the measure–that this new set of playoff overtime rules was a better way to govern how overtime sessions are carried out when 60 minutes of game time is not enough to decide a winner.  And while the discussion is far from over about whether or not this is the right system to have in place, knowing these situations detailed above will help you explain to your friends and fellow football fans how playoff overtime will play out if any games go to overtime in January or February 2011–or, should the new rules be extended to cover the regular season, any overtime games at all in the 2010 NFL Season.

Brian Parker - Born in Maine, a state with no professional sports team, Brian Parker is nonetheless a huge statistics nerd and fan of the NFL and NHL, with some passing interest in the MLB. Regional ties see him as a Patriots and Red Sox fan, though a childhood of watching Patrick Roy tend the net as a Montreal Canadien puts him on the opposite side of his fellow New Englanders for that NHL rivalry. Brian has both an M.A. and a B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from the University of Maine. - Follow him on Twitter here - Visit his personal website

Post navigation

  • Ferris Wheeler

    Hey Brian You're Not Tryin' Hard Enough,

    What happens if Team A wins the toss and kicks to Team B? (Let's say rthere is a 40mph wind) Does Team A turn into Team B above in your 12 which should have been 13 situations?

  • Nice one haha. The trick there is that for all of the scenarios put forth, Team A is just the name for the team winning the coin-flip to try and make the descriptions easier.

    In Situation #9, where Team A wins the toss but elects to do an onside kick, if they recover the ball then the next team to score wins because, as stated, each team had an opportunity to earn possession.

    However, if the team winning the toss (Team A) elected to do a straight kickoff–or if they tried an onside kick and the other team (Team B) got the ball–then the team receiving the ball (Team B) would have the opportunity to either kick a field goal or score a touchdown with their offensive possession. If they (Team B) kicked a field goal, they would have to kick the ball off and the original kicking team (Team A) would have an offensive possession to tie or win the game. If they (Team B) scored a touchdown, the game would be over and the coach of Team A, who elected to kick the ball off, would feel a bit sheepish; which is part of why coaches aren't really happy about the rule changes.

  • Ferris Wheeler

    Hey Brian You're Not Tryin' Hard Enough,

    What happens if Team A wins the toss and kicks to Team B? (Let's say rthere is a 40mph wind) Does Team A turn into Team B above in your 12 which should have been 13 situations?

  • After trying to figure out a few ways to adapt the story based on the comments, I've decided to rewrite the situational examples to reflect both what happens when the team winning the coin flip chooses to kick off and what happens when the team winning the coin flip chooses to receive. The results are essentially just reversed, but having them spelled out in writing can help minimize confusion.

  • Pingback: Madden NFL 11 Demo – A Perfect “Teachable Moment” for EA Sports and the NFL | The Sports Geeks()