Sunday, January 8, 2012

NFL Playoff Overtime Rule Makes Its Debut

The first non-sudden death overtime made its debut today in the Pittsburgh Steelers-Denver Broncos wildcard weekend match up. In the end, it was rather moot.

After trailing 20 to 6 at halftime, Pittsburgh managed to make a comeback topped off with a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:56 left in regulation to tie the game, 23-23. Denver nor Pittsburgh were able to score on their ensuing possessions, sending the game into an overtime that did not last long.

The overtime was the debut for a rule that was adopted at the annual owners meeting prior to the 2010 NFL season. Since the rules committee decided not to apply the rule to the regular season and all postseason games last year ended in regulation, it went by the wayside until today.

Prior to the rule change, overtime in the playoffs, like the regular season, was sudden death. The first team to score in any manner would be the winners, even though their opponents may have never had a chance to possess the ball. The intended purpose was to cut down on the occurrences of a team winning the toss, electing to receive and subsequently kicking a field goal to win a game. 

The rule change allows for both teams the opportunity to possess the ball and a chance to score. 

There are a couple exceptions to this per NFL Rule 16-1-4a, as Referee Ron Winter noted in his explanation of the rules prior to the overtime coin toss. If the team with the first opportunity to possess the ball scores a touchdown or if the opponents score a safety against the team with initial possession, the game is over with the scoring team the winners. 

A defensive touchdown would also end the game on the initial possession or any possession thereafter. However, a defensive touchdown would mean the opposing team had gained possession, as in Rule 16-1-4f. This scenario is not considered an exception because both teams will have possessed the ball.

Three different scenarios can result if the team with initial possession scores a field goal on that possession because the opposing team has an opportunity to possess the ball. First, if the opposing team scores a touchdown on the ensuing possession, they win the game. If they fail to score, the team that initially scored a field goal wins the game. Finally, if the opposing team matches the field goal, the game will continue under sudden death rules with the next score winning the game. 

If there is no score on the initial possession of the overtime period, the game will also continue with the first score ending the game. All other overtime rules apply, including of course that there can be multiple overtime periods in the postseason. It is possible for a second overtime period to occur even if a team trails, if their initial possession (after the opposing team has scored a field goal on their initial possession) has not ended before the conclusion of the first overtime period.

There is an opportunity for both teams to possess the ball, however the rule does not ensure both teams get to possess the ball. The opportunity to possess the ball only references kicking plays, according to Rule 16-1-4g. The opportunity pertains to the chance for the receiving team to gain possession. If the kicking team legally recovers the ball on any kicking play (whether it be grounded and traveled ten yards on a free kick, or muffed by the receiving team on a free kick or scrimmage kick), the receiving team is ruled to have had an opportunity to possess the ball. Thus, if a team were to recover an onside kick on the opening kickoff and score a field goal on the ensuing drive, the game would be over.

The magic of Tim Tebow, however, made this rule change meaningless in a matter of 11 seconds. On the very first play from scrimmage in overtime, Tebow threw a strike to Demaryius Thomas for an 80 yard touchdown pass to win the game, 29-23, negating Pittsburgh's opportunity to possess the ball. 

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