NFL Overtime Rules: Old vs. New and Regular Season vs. Playoff Rules

In any sport, change is often necessary. Sometimes the change is for player safety. Other times, it’s to make for more accurate outcomes or to provide more excitement. In the case of the NFL overtime rule change, it was for all three of these reasons. Below is an explanation of the rules for NFL overtime and the difference between the regular season and playoffs.

In 2017, 66 percent of NFL regular-season games went into the fourth quarter with the losing team within one score of the winning team. With so many close games, many of them often go to overtime. Overtime was first implemented in 1974, and before the new rule change, 574 games were decided by OT.

Old Overtime Rule

With the old overtime rule, there was a coin toss to determine who would receive the ball first. Whichever side won the toss would always choose to receive the ball first because the first team to score would win the game. With no guarantee that both teams would have an opportunity to possess the ball, the old rule was not in the fairest spirit of competition.

The biggest complaint with the old overtime was that an opening drive field goal could end it. While some could argue that the opposing defense had the opportunity to make a stop, and that argument is valid, it only takes a couple of decent gains to get into field goal range. With such a small sample size in overtime and no guarantee that the other team would ever see the ball, the rule could be improved upon.

New Overtime Rule

If the clock runs out in the fourth quarter, the game goes to overtime, and the referee will hold a coin toss. The visiting team captain will have the opportunity to call the toss. Whoever wins the coin toss will have the opportunity of taking the ball or deciding which endzone to defend.

The biggest difference between the old rule and the new rule is that each team has the opportunity to possess the ball—unless the first team that receives the ball scores a touchdown. The reason for this caveat is that the main complaint with the old overtime rule was that it was too easy for a team to gain a few chunks of yards to put themselves into a position to kick a game-winning field goal.

Each team has two timeouts and will play one ten-minute period. The period time was reduced from 15 minutes to ten minutes with player safety in mind. If the score is still tied after the ten minutes are up, the game will end in a tie.

Overtime Examples

If the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are playing a game in Dallas, the Eagles team captain would call the coin toss. If he calls heads and it lands heads, he will choose to either take the ball or go on defense. In the old overtime rules, a team would always take the ball first for the opportunity to end the game. With the new rules, though, a team can be more strategic.

If there is a heavy wind blowing, a team may choose to defend an endzone that gives them a wind advantage. Dallas plays in a dome, though, so the wind is not a factor. The other factor to consider is how good your offense is compared to your defense. The Eagles have a better offense than defense, so they would likely choose to take the ball and try to win the game by marching down the field for a touchdown.

Let’s say the Eagles do not score a game-ending touchdown but instead settle for a field goal. They would then kick the ball back to the Cowboys, who have the opportunity to tie the game with a field goal or score a game-winning touchdown of their own. If the Cowboys go down the field but also have to settle for a field goal, they would then kick the ball back to the Eagles. At this point, there would be limited time left on the 10:00 clock, and the Eagles would have to score to avoid the game ending in a tie.

Other Scenarios:

  • Cowboys score a touchdown after Eagles’ field goal – Cowboys win.
  • Cowboys kick a field goal, and Eagles fail to score – Cowboys win.
  • Eagles score a touchdown after Cowboys’ field goal – Eagles win.
  • Eagles score a touchdown on their opening drive – Eagles win.

Overtime Rules for Postseason

Playoff games cannot end in a tie, so the rules change slightly for the postseason. Each team receives three timeouts instead of two. If the game is tied at the end of the first period or if the first period ends while the second team’s first possession has not ended, the game will go to a second period. There is a two-minute intermission between each period. The two teams will play as many periods as required to determine a winner. If there is no winner after four periods, there will be a second coin toss and the process will start over.

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