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NFL will examine overtime format, but any changes could face uphill climb

Travis Kelce and the Chiefs celebrate Kelce's winning touchdown in overtime in Sunday's victory over the Bills in an AFC divisional-round playoff game in Kansas City, Mo. (Colin E. Braley/AP)
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The NFL and its rulemaking competition committee expect to consider changes to the overtime format this offseason, particularly as it relates to postseason games. But it is far from certain that any modifications will be enacted, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.

The offseason deliberations will come amid renewed scrutiny of the overtime rules that followed Sunday’s 42-36 triumph by the Kansas City Chiefs over the Buffalo Bills in a memorable AFC divisional-round playoff game.

The Chiefs, in a thrilling game hailed by many as one of the best in postseason history, won the overtime coin toss and prevailed with an opening-drive touchdown. The Bills never got possession of the ball.

There probably will be a distinction made in the upcoming discussions between the overtime format for the postseason and the rules for the regular season.

“I don’t see it changing for the regular season,” one person with knowledge of the matter said. “I think you’ll probably see consideration of it for the postseason.”

That doesn’t mean that modifications necessarily are coming, even for the postseason. Any rule change would have to be approved by at least 24 of the 32 teams. A proposal to tweak even the postseason overtime format still could face an uphill climb toward ratification.

“Don’t know yet,” a second person familiar with the situation said. “It will certainly be discussed, as it has been almost every year.”

The current NFL overtime format applies to regular season and postseason games. Under it, the team that gets the ball first in overtime can win the game with a touchdown but not with a field goal. If a team gets a field goal on the opening possession of overtime, its opponent gets possession of the ball with a chance to tie the score with a field goal or win with a touchdown. If each team gets a field goal, the game continues on a sudden-death basis, with the next score winning the game.

The league and team owners put that system in place, initially for postseason games only, in 2010. That format was applied to regular season games beginning in 2012. Before that, the first team to score in overtime won the game, even with a field goal.

The Chiefs made a rule-change proposal in 2019 to guarantee each team at least one possession in overtime. They had lost that year’s AFC championship game to the New England Patriots, concluding their 2018 season, on an opening-possession overtime touchdown by the Patriots. But the Chiefs’ proposal was not approved. It was tabled at the league meeting in March that year and did not even come to a vote of the owners at their May meeting because of a lack of support.

The issue becomes balancing competitive fairness with other practical considerations. Proponents of a change argue that, especially in this age of high-powered offenses, it’s only equitable for both teams to have a chance to possess the ball in overtime. The team winning the coin toss has prevailed in 10 of the 11 postseason overtime games since the 2010 season under the current rules; teams winning the overtime coin flip have won the game only 50 percent of the time (76 of 152) in the regular season since 2012 under these rules.

Those opposed to changes argue that the team that begins overtime on defense merely has to keep its opponent out of the end zone to extend the game.

Meanwhile, NFL rulemakers always have been wary of extending games because of injury risks and because teams must recover to play their following games; in the postseason, that consideration would apply only to the winning team. There has been reluctance to go to a college-style overtime format in which teams alternate possessions from a predetermined yard line.

“There’s a health and safety aspect,” one of the people with knowledge of the deliberations said this week. “There’s a ‘next game’ aspect. There’s the aspect of keeping special teams in it, keeping field position in it.”

There’s also the question of how motivated the league and owners will be to fix something that’s not necessarily broken, at least from a business perspective. The Chiefs-Bills game had a dramatic ending. The game averaged 42.7 million viewers on CBS, according to the network. Viewership peaked at 51.7 million. It was the most-watched divisional-round playoff game on any network since 2017.

College overtime games, by contrast, can drag on to less-satisfying conclusions with artificially bloated scores. The NFL would have to settle on a new format: How would the game proceed, for example, if both teams score overtime touchdowns? Would the next score win, or would the opposing team always be given an opportunity to match?

NFL will consider further instant replay changes, but ‘sky judge’ remains unlikely

Last offseason, the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles proposed variations of a “spot and choose” overtime format. One team would choose the yard line — for example, the 20-yard line, 80 yards from the end zone — at which the first possession of overtime would begin. The other team then would have the option, based on that starting point, of being on offense or defense. That would inject strategy into the situation. But the proposal was considered too gimmicky by some teams and gained little traction.

NFL officials and competition committee members generally meet early in the offseason. They develop rule-change proposals, and those, along with any proposals made by individual teams, usually are put before owners and teams at the league meeting in March.

The league also plans to give consideration this offseason to changes to the instant replay system, potentially making roughing-the-passer calls reviewable or giving a team the ability to challenge any on-field ruling within the structure of the current coach’s challenge setup. But the NFL remains wary of going to a full-fledged “sky judge” arrangement, a person familiar with the league’s thinking said recently.

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