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NFL changes overtime format for postseason games only

The Chiefs got an overtime victory over the Bills during the playoffs. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — The NFL has a new overtime format but for postseason games only. The franchise owners voted Tuesday at the annual league meetings to ratify a proposal that guarantees each team at least one overtime possession in postseason games that are tied after regulation.

The modification takes effect in the playoffs following the 2022 season. The overtime rules remain unchanged for the regular season.

“This is something that we felt we needed to change,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee.

The owners approved the proposal, 29-3, according to a person familiar with the voting. The measure was tweaked to apply only to postseason games after being proposed by the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles to cover the regular season and the postseason. The proposal needed at least 24 votes to be approved.

“We got a lot of votes,” McKay said. “We got way above 24. And I’m jacked.”

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Momentum for a change grew after an epic AFC playoff game in which the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Buffalo Bills with a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime.

“I like that we’re trying to figure it out,” Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said earlier Tuesday. “I like that we’re continuing to progress to figure: Is there a better way to do this thing? I would like to see both teams have an equal shot ... and it doesn’t feel like that when you go right down the field and score.”

The new format guarantees each team at least one overtime possession. If the score remains tied after that, the next team to score wins. An alternative proposal made by the Tennessee Titans — requiring a team to get a two-point conversion as well as a touchdown to prevail on the opening possession of overtime — was withdrawn.

“I think the largest component in the discussion is searching to be traditional and not alter the structure of it in any way but at the same time make circumstances competitively fair for both teams,” Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said Monday.

Under the format that remains in effect for the regular season, a team can win with a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime. If a team gets a field goal on the opening possession, its opponent gets a possession with a chance to tie the score — and prolong the game — with a field goal or win with a touchdown.

The debate over overtime rules was renewed in the aftermath of the Chiefs-Bills clash in January. That game featured a memorable quarterback duel between the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Bills’ Josh Allen, but Allen never left the sideline in overtime.

“It’s potentially the greatest 20 [or] 30 minutes of football that I’ve ever seen — ever, just watching a game,” McKay said Tuesday. “And to think that it ended that way definitely brought up the idea of: ‘Hey, is that equitable? Does that work for everybody?’ No question that started the discussion. But what typically happens in these is they tend to lose momentum as you get further away from the game. And that did not happen in this instance.”

The Chiefs then lost the AFC championship game to the Cincinnati Bengals despite having the ball first in overtime. That bolstered the argument by some observers that no change to the format was needed; rather, the team that doesn’t have the ball first simply needs to play better defense.

“I’m a traditionalist: get off the field defensively,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “… [But] the fans want to see [their] quarterback touch the ball. The data drove us to that.”

The Chiefs-Bills outcome was enough to prompt a change just three years after the owners considered modifying overtime but opted against it.

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The overtime debate amounts to a balancing of competitive fairness with a desire to keep games from dragging on, exposing players to greater injury risk. That explains the decision not to apply the new format to the regular season.

The owners have never seemed to favor a college-style format with teams alternating possessions from a certain yard line, considering that too gimmicky. But those in the league also don’t want to see games essentially decided by an overtime coin flip determining possession.

Since 2010, when the most recent overtime format was implemented for the playoffs, seven of the 12 postseason overtime games were won with an opening-possession touchdown and 10 were won by the team that won the overtime coin toss.

“That data was compelling to us and to the league,” McKay said.

The advantage has been less pronounced during the regular season. The current overtime rules were applied to regular season games beginning in 2012. Since then, the team that won the overtime coin toss has won exactly half of the games — 76 of 152. Both teams had at least one possession in overtime in 124 of those games, or 82 percent.

The league also said Tuesday that it reaffirmed its commitment to sportsmanship that resulted in last season’s strict enforcement of the existing anti-taunting rule.

“Sportsmanship is critical for our game,” Vincent said.