The AFC championship game had everything: a 41-year-old quarterback, arguably the greatest ever, squaring off with a 23-year-old hotshot who’ll likely win NFL MVP honors in his first season as a starter. A reigning dynasty versus a dynamic upstart. A back-and-forth, 38-point fourth quarter. And, of course, overtime.
However, one thing that the Patriots’ enthralling, 37-31 win over the Chiefs did not have was an opportunity for that hotshot, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, to do something with the ball in overtime. After New England won the coin toss and moved relentlessly downfield for the game-wining touchdown, Mahomes could only watch, leading more than a few observers to call for the NFL to change its rules.
Mahomes had just led Kansas City back from deficits of 14-0 after the first half and 17-7 after three quarters, helping his team score 24 fourth-quarter points. He said after the game that had the Chiefs won the overtime coin toss, he had no doubt they would have gone on to the victory, declaring, “I felt like we were rolling.”
Others simply would have liked to have seen Mahomes, who threw for 50 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards this season, get the chance to keep rolling. “I needed [Brett] Favre to get a shot in [the 2010 NFC title game]. I needed Mahomes to get a shot tonight,” Matthew Coller of ESPN Twin Cities said on Twitter. “Change OT rules for the playoffs.”
The assertions that the NFL should change its overtime rules in the playoffs were met, in many cases, by rebuttals that nothing was unfair and that if the Chiefs wanted a chance on offense, they should have stopped the Patriots on defense. Some even pointed out that the game would never have reached overtime if Kansas City defensive end Dee Ford had not committed a neutral-zone infraction that negated a would-be game-sealing interception and allowed the Patriots to continue a drive for a last-minute touchdown in regulation. But most of the focus was on the extra session.
The NFL’s overtime rules in the playoffs are similar to the ones for regular-season games: the team that starts on defense gets an opportunity with the ball as long as that initial possession doesn’t result in a touchdown or a safety. Kansas City could not prevent New England from reaching the end zone, and the Chiefs’ defense had plenty of chances to get a stopconsidering the Patriots needed a 13-play, 75-yard drive, converting three third-and-10 plays along the way, to get their touchdown.
In response to the Pro Football Talk tweet advocating for a rules change, one Twitter user said, “[Expletive] that. The old saying is defense wins championships. I get when it was just a field goal, but they let them march down the field and score, you deserve to lose. And that’s coming from a Dolphin fan that hates the Pats.”
That comment referred to the fact that before the 2010 playoffs, the NFL had a sudden-death overtime format for all games, in which the first team to score in any fashion won. Following the 2010 NFC championship game, when the Saints beat the Vikings on an overtime field goal as Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre stood helplessly on the sideline, the league changed its overtime format and it extended the new rules to regular season games in 2012.
“Like it or not NFL overtime adheres to one basic premise — sudden death,” Dean Blandino, the league’s former head of officiating and now a Fox Sports analyst, said on Twitter. “The game can end on any play at any moment. Would be a mistake to change that.”
Still, some onlookers on Sunday claimed that they continued to prefer the college football overtime rules, in which both teams are guaranteed to get the ball on drives starting at the opposing 25-yard lines, or at least a version looking more like that. Perhaps not surprisingly, among those clamoring for the NFL to change its rules were a pair of college football writers for The Athletic, including Chris Vannini, who tweeted, “The most exciting player in your sport doesn’t get to see the field in OT. Good rules.”
“Any OT system that DOES NOT LET PATRICK MAHOMES TOUCH THE BALL AT ALL is not a fair one,” exclaimed the website’s Nicole Auerbach.
Even former U.S. congressman Jason Chaffetz, now a Fox News analyst, chimed in, tweeting, “NFL overtime rules should be changed. Go with the college overtime. Each team should get an equal possession. Winning a coin toss should not give you the advantage.”
Some pointed to other rules changes instituted by the NFL that have tended to greatly favor offenses as cause for the league to address overtime in the playoffs. The top four teams in regular season scoring — the Chiefs, Rams, Saints and Patriots were the four contestants for conference titles Sunday. The highest any of them finished on defense, as measured by the traditional metric of yards allowed per game, was 14th. That honor went to New Orleans, whereas Kansas City’s next-to-last finish in that category did not stop the team from going 12-4 and getting the AFC’s top seed in the playoffs.
“This issue is only getting worse the more the league swings towards offense and away from defense,” Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson tweeted, adding “the NFL has been systematically trying to outlaw defense, so we may need a rule update.”
Taking the widely cited opposing stance, a Twitter user replied to Monson, “That’s an NFL defense out there for the Chiefs. It’s their JOB to get a stop, for the offense. You gotta earn that [expletive]. You’re expecting them to GIVE the offense a shot. Football isn’t only about offense, the defense failed.”
“This may have held water when defense had a fighting chance,” Monson said in return, “but as long as the league is relentlessly pushing for all offense all the time we need to stop pretending the defense is suddenly in a fair fight once you get to overtime.”
Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion of the night regarding how the NFL should change its rules had nothing to do with ways to give both teams the chance to have possessions in overtime. As posited by Sports Illustrated’s Jacob Feldman, “Each team secretly says what yard line they’d be willing to start with the ball on. Whoever suggests a worse starting position gets the ball there.”
In other words, a blind-bid auction would determine who got the ball first in overtime, and where. The strategy would be fascinating — pick a spot too close to your own end zone, and you risk not being able to advance the ball very far and likely giving the opponent excellent field position after a punt, but play it too safe and you run the risk of never getting the ball at all.
That still wouldn’t necessarily alleviate the frustration of not seeing a red-hot player get his chance in overtime — and it almost certainly won’t be adopted by the league. It would at least eliminate the problem of how big a role random luck, in the form of a coin flip, currently plays in overtime.
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