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Overtime rules for the NFL playoffs

In the offseason prior to the 2022 season, NFL owners approved a modification to the overtime provisions to essentially give both teams a guaranteed possession in nearly all cases.

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In the offseason prior to the 2022 season, NFL owners approved a modification to the overtime provisions to essentially give both teams a guaranteed possession in nearly all cases.

The regular season rule remains the same, that overtime is only extended if the first possession of the game ends in a field goal. But postseason will continue past a touchdown as well, and has the ability to go to a second overtime if necessary. Any change of possession will revert the game to standard sudden death overtime. If the possession change is on that second possession with the team trailing, it is the last play of the game, unless the trailing team equalizes the score on that play. So if the trailing team is intercepted and regains possession on the same play, they must also score on that play, because a game-ending change of possession has occurred.

For clarity, any touchdown scored by the defense will end the game. A kickoff return to the house in overtime is not necessarily the end of the game in the playoffs.

If the score is re-tied in the overtime period, it will also revert to standard sudden death.

Each overtime period in the postseason is 15 minutes, and both teams have 3 timeouts. After 2 overtime periods, it is a new “half” (with a kickoff) and another set of 3 timeouts.

The overtime scenarios the rules present are interesting in many respects.

Since one- and two-point conversions were trivial to the result of overtime, they were never attempted by rule. But now that overtime can continue beyond a touchdown, a conversion attempt must be attempted any time it could have an effect on the result.

If a touchdown is scored on the first possession, the team that was on defense has a chance to tie the game as well. So, if a one-point conversion was scored on the first touchdown of overtime, the second team can go for a two-point conversion and the automatic win. The team that touches the ball second has the advantage of foreknowledge of the scoring plays they can attempt at the end of the drive.

This adds additional strategy to the coin toss. If a team wants the second possession, it must elect to “kick” and not choose which goal to defend.

Unlike regular season overtime, postseason overtime can continue into a 2nd overtime if the second possession provided for in the rules has not completed (or hasn’t yet started).

Unusual situations

These unusual situations pertain to overtime in the regular season and postseason.

If the overtime period begins with a successful onside kick, the receiving team is deemed to have had the opportunity to possess the ball, and will not get a retaliatory possession after a score.

If a safety is scored, it always ends the game. If the defense scores the safety on the first possession, it has locked a win. If there is an unusual situation where a trailing team scores a safety while on offense (requires a change of possession on the play), the safety will not provide enough points to win the game.

If there is a double change of possession on the trailing team’s possession, they must at least tie the game on that play. Since it is not a continuation of that team’s possession, the game ends on that play. Anything short of a score on that double change of possession ends the game.

For those more inclined to visual representations, the following chart illustrates the postseason overtime rules. For these examples, team Y will receive the kickoff to start overtime, and team Z is the opponent, and 1P and 2P indicate the first and second possessions.

First…Then…Result
Y scores a FG on 1PZ scores a FG on 2P Game continues in standard sudden death
Y scores a FG on 1PZ scores a TD on 2PZ wins
Y scores a TD on 1PZ scores a TD on 2PZ can attempt to tie or win the game on the conversion
Either team scores safetyGame is over and the team in the lead wins (except if the safety is on a conversion attempt)
Either team scores defensive TDGame is over and the team in the lead wins
Y scores TD on opening kickoffY kicks off to Z
Y punts or loses possessionGame continues in standard sudden death
Z intercepts or recovers Y’s fumble on 1PZ fumbles it back to Y on the same playGame continues in standard sudden death, as both teams possessed the ball
Y scores on 1PZ loses possession or fails on 4th down in 2PY wins
Y scores on 1PY intercepts/recovers Z’s fumble, then fumbles back to Z on the same playIf Z does not also score on that play, Y wins because 2P ended.
Y scores TD on 1PY intercepts/recovers Z’s fumble, then fumbles back to Z on the same play, which Z returns for a TDZ can attempt to tie or win the game on the conversion
Onside opening kickoffZ recoversGame continues in standard sudden death and can end without Y going on offense
Y muffs or fumbles opening kickoffZ recoversGame continues in standard sudden death and can end without Y going on offense
Y scores on 1POvertime period ends on 2PZ continues the 2P in the second OT (playoffs only)
Y scores on 1PY recovers ensuing onside kickY wins even though Z does not go on offense
Y scores on 1PY intercepts/recovers Z’s fumble, then on the runback fumbles out of bounds into Z’s end zoneTouchback. Z’s 2P ends and Y wins
Y scores FG on 1PY gains possession on 2P and on the return causes a safety to be scored in its own end zoneY wins, scoring 3-2 in the overtime.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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