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How important is it to fix overtime in the NFL?

How much does overtime matter, and will the NFL’s rule change fix the problem?

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Josh Umphrey/Getty Images

The NFL is trying to “fix” overtime, and there’s a good reason, because overtime settles a lot of games, teams win and lose based on what happens in overtime. This topic is hot right now because of the 2021 NFL playoffs and the games that were won in overtime in a single-elimination playoff, but the impact of overtime goes much farther, and we are going to look at that today.

The NFL implemented overtime for regular season games in 1974, the year the Steelers won their first Super Bowl (the 1974 Steelers played in only one OT game, and tied it). Before 1974 when the 4th quarter ended, the game ended. This move was made because ties weren’t popular. They still aren’t, most fans absolutely hate them, including the writer of this article.

But it is worth exploring the impact that overtime has on the NFL, and 2021 is a great season to look at to see how impactful overtime has become. It’s also not hard to analyze the impact either, since all we have to do is change any overtime result to a tie. Here’s what the playoff race in the NFL would have looked like in 2021 if the NFL had never allowed overtime.

AFC Playoff standings
1 Buffalo Bills 11-5-1
2 Kansas City Chiefs 11-5-1
3 Tennessee Titans 11-5-1 (head to head record settled this tie)
4 Bengals 9-5-3
5 Patriots 10-6-1
6 Indianapolis Colts 9-6-2
7 Las Angeles Chargers 9-6-2 (division record settled this tie)
Missing the playoffs
Steelers 7-7-3
Las Vegas Raiders 6-7-4

To be honest, I think these standings are more accurate than the actual 2021 AFC standings. The Steelers and Raiders made the playoffs because they were really good at football after the game was over.

Without the influence of overtime, the Bills get the first round bye, and the Titans are hosting the Colts for a wild card weekend. If we take the teams that played in the 2021 divisional round as winners here, this divisional round would have the Bills facing the Bengals and the Chiefs facing the Titans, and if the Bills and Chiefs did face off (the game that is the reason we are talking about overtime) it would be in Buffalo and it would be the AFC Championship game.

While I don’t like ties, I honestly think that this standings and playoff setup is more accurate for what we saw in the regular season, and gives much better matchups for the playoffs.

The NFC changes a bit as well.

AFC Playoff Standings
1 Green Bay Packers 12-4-1
2 Las Angeles Rams 12-4-1
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 12-4-1 (Three-way tie settled on head to head record)
4 Dallas Cowboys 11-4-2
5 Arizona Cardinals 11-6
6 New Orleans Saints 9-7-1
7 San Francisco 49ers 8-7-2
Missing the playoffs
Philadelphia Eagles 9-8 (49ers win tie breaker on head to head record)

The big change here is the Saints making the playoffs over the Eagles, and the Rams moving up to the second seed. That has the Rams hosting the 49ers in the first round, as well as the Buccaneers hosting the Saints and the Cowboys hosting the Cardinals. With the Cardinals and 49ers switching opponents, it isn’t far fetched to think the Cardinals would have survived to face Green Bay, or maybe the 49ers shock the Rams in the wild card round.

Either way, it is easy to see the important role that overtime plays in the regular season, and how those games affect playoff seeding. Which makes it interesting that the NFL’s recent change to overtime will only take place in the playoffs. Which brings us to our next question, how many games would the new rule have affected in 2021? Would the new rule have much impact at all, would any playoff seeding be at risk of change had the new rule been in place?

For this I went through all the overtime games in 2021 and looked at how many were ended on the first drive of overtime, and there were four games that qualified.

First, in Week 4 the New Orleans Saints hosted the New York Giants, and the Saints tied the game with 31 seconds left in the 4th quarter, a kickoff and two plays later the game ended, overtime began and the Giants got the ball, and they drove for the game winning touchdown.
If you look above, you see that without overtime, the Saints would have made the playoffs, this loss knocked them out.

Second, in week 5 the Ravens hosted the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens tied the game with 35 seconds left, the Colts drove down the field, but missed a field goal that would have won them the game, Baltimore won the coin toss for overtime, and drove the length of the field to score a touchdown and win the game.
Again, if you look above the Colts missed the playoffs in 2021, but without this overtime loss, they make the playoffs.

In Week 6 the Carolina Panthers hosted the Minnesota Vikings, the Panthers tied the game with 42 seconds left, the Vikings drove the field but missed the game winning field goal. The Vikings then won the coin toss for overtime, drove the field and scored the touchdown to win the game.

While this is the only of these four games that didn’t affect the playoffs, this game mimics the Chiefs/Bills game with the Vikings getting the last drive of the game and the first drive of overtime.

In Week 15 the Chargers hosted the Chiefs, the Chiefs tied the game with 1:16 seconds remaining, both teams then had quick possessions that didn’t score before the clock ran out. The Chiefs won the overtime coin toss, drove for a touchdown and won the game.

If you look above, without overtime, the Chargers make the playoffs, and the Chiefs don’t have home field advantage over Buffalo. This overtime game was instrumental in knocking the Chargers out of the playoffs and played a part in the Chiefs playoff run.

While it may seem important that playoff games will have a different overtime structure to “get it right”, the playoffs were affected by that same overtime rule before Kansas City got the ball twice in a row to beat the Buffalo Bills.

Whether it happens again in 2022 will be a story to watch, as will the effectiveness of the NFL’s attempt at solving the problem.

For a full discussion on the effect of overtime and other options the NFL should consider, check out Geoffrey Benedict and Dave Schofield on this week’s Steelers Stat Geek podcast: