The NFL’s current overtime rules have had a rough stretch over the last few years. Yet despite inevitable criticism of the format in pro football every time a team loses in part because it did not get a chance to possess the ball in overtime, the rules established a decade ago remain in place in 2021.
The NFL’s overtime rules do not allow for a sudden-death situation until both teams have possessed the ball and the game remains tied. However, if the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown, the game ends. Many argue the existence of that rule gives too much value to something as random as a coin toss.
Last year’s Saints became victims of the NFL’s overtime rules when Drew Brees and New Orleans’ offense helplessly watched the Vikings drive down the field for a touchdown in overtime of a playoff game without getting a chance to match. The same happened to the Chiefs against the Patriots in the 2019 AFC championship game. Super Bowl 51 ended when the Patriots scored on their first possession of overtime against the Falcons.
DeCOURCY: How to fix the NFL’s overtime rules
These high-profile recent examples are major reasons why multiple teams have proposed changes to the NFL’s overtime rules in recent years. Following the aforementioned heartbreak in the AFC title game, Kansas City proposed a rule change that would allow both teams the opportunity to possess the ball at least one time in overtime, even if the first team to possess the ball in overtime scores a touchdown.
That proposal was tabled by the NFL competition committee and eventually dropped. More recently, the Eagles submitted a proposal that would have changed the time in an overtime period — it’s currently 10 minutes — but that idea suffered the same fate.
So for now, the NFL’s overtime rules are the same as they have been for the last four years. Below is the NFL’s overtime format, plus a more detailed explanation of the recent overtime rule change proposals.
NFL overtime rules 2021
The NFL’s overtime rules were amended as recently as 2017, when the overtime period was shortened from 15 minutes to 10 minutes in the name of player safety.
The sudden-death NFL overtime format we know today was established in 2010. It gives both teams the chance to possess the ball at least once in overtime unless — and this is key — the team that receives the overtime kickoff scores a touchdown on its first possession.
The full section of the NFL rule book on overtime, which explains all the procedures in full, can be found here.
NFL overtime rules for preseason and regular season
- At the end of regulation, the referee will toss a coin to determine which team will possess the ball first in overtime. The visiting team captain will call the toss.
- No more than one 10-minute period will follow a three-minute intermission. Each team must possess, or have the opportunity to possess, the ball. The exception: if the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown on the opening possession.
- Sudden death play — where the game ends on any score (safety, field goal or touchdown) — continues until a winner is determined.
- Each team gets two timeouts.
- The point after try is not attempted if the game ends on a touchdown.
- If the score is still tied at the end of the overtime period, the result of the game will be recorded as a tie.
- There are no instant replay coach’s challenges; all reviews will be initiated by the replay official.
NFL overtime rules for playoff games
- If the score is still tied at the end of an overtime period — or if the second team’s initial possession has not ended — the teams will play another overtime period. Play will continue regardless of how many overtime periods are needed for a winner to be determined.
- There will be a two-minute intermission between each overtime period. There will not be a halftime intermission after the second period.
- The captain who lost the first overtime coin toss will either choose to possess the ball or select which goal his team will defend, unless the team that won the coin toss deferred that choice.
- Each team gets three timeouts during a half.
- The same timing rules that apply at the end of the second and fourth regulation periods also apply at the end of a second or fourth overtime period.
- If there is still no winner at the end of a fourth overtime period, there will be another coin toss, and play will continue until a winner is declared.
NFL overtime rule change proposals
Shortly after the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the 2019 AFC championship game by driving down the field and scoring a touchdown on their first possession of overtime, Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy delivered the perfect analogy to explain what was so wrong about the rules that didn’t give Patrick Mahomes and Co. a chance to respond.
“Imagine if baseball were to decide a League Championship Series game that progressed to extra innings by awarding a spot in the World Series to a team that scored a run in the top half of the 10th — without allowing the team in the field a turn at bat,” DeCourcy wrote. “That’s what the NFL just did.”
The Chiefs were understandably frustrated by what had transpired, so the following spring, they submitted to the NFL competition committee a rule change proposal that would address the issue.
Below is what the Chiefs’ proposal included:
- Allow both teams the opportunity to possess the ball at least one time in overtime, even if the first team to possess the ball in overtime scores a touchdown.
- Eliminate overtime for preseason.
- Eliminate overtime coin toss so that winner of initial coin toss to begin game may choose whether to kick or receive, or which goal to defend.
The Chiefs’ proposal was tabled twice in 2019 and eventually dropped, but similar modifications to the NFL rule book can and likely will be suggested in the coming years.
In 2020, the Eagles submitted a rule change proposal that would have restored preseason and regular season overtime periods to 15 minutes (rather than 10) as they were prior to 2017. Philadelphia’s proposal also looked to minimize the impact of the overtime coin toss.
That proposal never made it to the voting process as a potential NFL rule change.
History of NFL overtime rules
The first NFL game ever to use overtime as a way to decide a game that had ended regulation in a tie came on Aug. 28, 1955. The Rams beat the Giants thanks to a sudden-death overtime format that was the brain child of Harry Glickman, the promoter of the game in Portland. That game, not the 1958 NFL championship between the Colts and Giants, was the first NFL overtime game.
It wasn’t until 1974, though, that the NFL officially added a sudden-death overtime period to be played in the event a game ended in regulation time with a tie. It was simple: First team to score wins; field goal included.
After 35 years of games using that overtime format, in 2010, the rules were amended for playoff games.
A field goal on the first drive of overtime no longer was enough for a team to win in sudden death; instead, a touchdown was required. That format — “both teams the opportunity to possess the ball at least once in overtime unless the team that receives the overtime kickoff scores a touchdown on its first possession” — was expanded in 2012 to be used in preseason games and regular-season games, too.
In 2017, the length of the overtime period in preseason games and regular-season games was shortened from 15 minutes to 10 minutes in the name of player safety.