- The Washington Times
Monday, January 24, 2022

The most exciting NFL game in years was decided by … a flip of a coin? 

OK, so maybe the Kansas City Chiefs’ thrilling 42-36 overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills in the AFC divisional round Sunday didn’t actually come down to heads or tails, but it sure felt that way.

After a flurry of knockout punches in the last two minutes of the game — three lead changes on three go-ahead touchdowns, a first in NFL playoff history, plus a last-second kick to tie the score — overtime saw Kansas City win the toss, march down the field and end the game with Patrick Mahomes’ amazing back-shoulder game-winner to Travis Kelce.

Game over. Per the NFL’s overtime rules, no chance for Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills offense to answer.

In Arrowhead Stadium, the Kansas City crowd erupted. On social media, a separate conversation took place: Why can’t the NFL come up with an overtime format that keeps the focus on the players and the game rather than a coin toss? 

“The overtime rule for playoff games must change,” Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio tweeted. “If this one doesn’t spark a more fair approach nothing ever will.”

“Feels so unfair Buffalo doesn’t get a chance to answer that,” ESPN’s Matthew Berry wrote.

“Both offenses should have a chance to compete!” former wideout Torrey Smith tweeted.

The NFL’s overtime rule states that if a team scores a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime, they win. If they don’t, the other team fields at least a possession.

Ultimately, it will be on the NFL’s owners to approve any rule change to the overtime format — something they’ve done sparingly over the years. The last change came in 2017, when the regular season period was shortened from 15 minutes to 10. Before that, the last major changes were made in 2012 and 2010 — when the league abandoned its first-score wins format following a controversial NFC Championship game in the 2009 season. (The current format first applied only to the playoffs starting in 2010 and then was adopted for the regular season in ‘12.) 

If Sunday’s thrilling game does inspire change, then the question becomes: How should the NFL fix it? Well, here are three alternatives sure to make everybody happy — right?: 

Option 1: Both teams get at least one possession 

This solution would arguably make the most sense. And ironically, it’s the one the Chiefs suggested in 2019 after they were on the short end of the stick when Mahomes and the offense were left to watch as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots stormed down the field to knock the Chiefs out of the AFC Championship.

Back then, the proposal failed to gain traction — not even making it in front of the owners for a vote.

After Sunday’s win, Chiefs star Kelce, who caught Sunday’s game-winner, still supports a change. 

“Being in that situation, really having no rebuttal, is kind of tough,” Kelce told reporters.

As part of their proposal, the Chiefs also suggested scrapping the overtime coin toss altogether. Under their format, the team that won the game’s opening toss would have the option to receive or kick — which, in theory, would matter less because both teams would still have a possession. 

If the Bills would have an opportunity to get the ball, the game would have turned into sudden death. Either the Bills would have to score a touchdown or the Chiefs would have won with a stop. And there’s still plenty of drama in that. 

Option 2: Adopt another league’s rules (college or XFL)

If Sunday’s shootout wasn’t dramatic enough, imagine the Chiefs and the Bills battling it out for touchdowns and two-point tries as what happens often in college football.

For those unfamiliar with the format, college football overtime rules state that teams start from the opponent’s 25-yard line and each team retains the ball until it fails to score, fails to make a first down or turns the ball over. Starting with the second overtime, teams must go for two after touchdowns and then, if there’s a third overtime period, teams begin alternating two-point conversion plays instead of offensive possessions until one team scores and a stop is made. 

Of course, offenses may be too good for that format to realistically work. There was a reason the Twitter account @NFLMemes joked that the final score of Sunday’s game would be 142-135 with 19 overtimes if the NFL adopted college’s overtime rules. 

If the NFL wanted to avoid ripping off from college, it could look to — ahem — borrow from the XFL, which consisted of five “rounds” in which there were alternating single-play possessions, akin to an NHL shootout or soccer penalty kicks. Each possession started from the opponent’s five-yard line and the team with more points after five rounds was declared the winner. 

Option 3: Spot and choose

This comes from the Baltimore Ravens — a suggestion so creative that it might just work. Last year, the Ravens suggested the format works as follows: The team that wins the toss gets to choose where to spot the ball — anywhere on the field, i.e. their own 10-yard line — and the other team chooses whether to start on offense or defense.

So, in this scenario, teams would have to be much more strategic rather than hoping for the coin toss. According to NFL Research, the teams that won the overtime coin toss are 86-67-10 under the current format — winning almost 53% of the time. In the playoffs, since 2010, receiving teams are 10-1. 

The Ravens’ spot-and-choose tweak came with two proposals: Either make the period a 10-minute sudden-death period or a timed period of seven minutes and 30 seconds in which the team who is leading afterward wins.

Those proposals, however, were shot down by owners last April — with owners voting 28-4 against the timed version and 30-2 against the sudden death. 

“The rules are what they are,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen said Sunday. “I can’t complain about that ‘cause if it was the other way around, we’d be celebrating, too.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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