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NFL overtime format still broken; fixing it is simple

As predicted, fans and media unleashed their displeasure with the league’s inequitable overtime format following the Chiefs-Bills divisional round playoff game, which is understandable

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Buffalo free safety Jordan Poyer kneels on the field after NFL divisional round playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer kneels on the field after NFL divisional round playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs won 42-36 in overtime.

Ed Zurga, Associated Press

There are many things in sports that don’t make sense. Pac-12 officiating, for instance. The four-team playoff for the 130-team FBS. Antonio Brown. The NCAA transgender athlete rules. But the worst might be the nonsensical, idiotic, pull-out-your hair NFL overtime format. It’s even worse than soccer’s penalty kick.

There are problems in sports that are difficult to remedy. This isn’t one of them. And yet the NFL’s overtime format — with its obvious inequity — has dragged on for decades even though it seems as if there’s a game every season that raises outrage again over the way the NFL settles ties. This season is no exception.

Sunday’s divisional playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills deserved a better ending than the one they — and we — were given. It was essentially decided by a coin toss. In the NFL’s latest convoluted iteration of overtime, the game ends if the first possession results in a touchdown — without the other offense even stepping onto the field — but if a team scores on a field goal with its first possession the other team is given possession of the ball to try to tie or win.

The Chiefs-Bills game was epic, the lead changing hands six times, four of them in the second half. It produced 994 yards of offense and 78 points and dozens of big, seemingly game-changing plays. Neither team could break serve and one big play was followed by another.

In the second half alone, the Chiefs scored on a 25-yard touchdown run, then the Bills scored on a 75-yard touchdown pass and again on a 27-yard touchdown pass. The Chiefs responded with a 64-yard touchdown pass. Then the Bills answered with a 19-yard touchdown pass to take a three-point lead with 13 seconds left. Surely there wasn’t time for an answer — but then the Chiefs kicked a field goal with three seconds left to make it 36-36 at the end of regulation. In all, in the last 1:54 of regulation, there were three touchdowns, a field goal and a two-point conversion.

The Chiefs won the coin toss and, given the fact that the defenses were helpless to stop the offenses by this point, there was little doubt what that meant. TV color commentator Tony Romo said the coin toss was huge, and it was. The feeling was that whoever got the ball first was going to win, and that’s what happened. The Chiefs needed just eight plays and four minutes, 15 seconds to reach the end zone on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes to Travis Kelce.

The Bills offense never touched the ball. They were denied an equal opportunity to respond.

Fans were denied great theater.

Name another sport that doesn’t give teams an equal chance to break a tie. Even soccer got that right; the penalty kick is a ridiculous way to end a soccer game, but at least both teams get an equal number of attempts to win the game. Ditto for basketball, golf, tennis, volleyball, hockey …

Can we all agree that any format that places a premium on winning the flip of a coin should automatically be discounted?

Since Sunday’s game there has been the predictable uproar from fans and media. If all this sounds familiar, it should. In the 2018 AFC championship game, the Patriots and these same Chiefs were tied 31-all at the end of regulation. The Patriots won the coin toss and marched down the field to win the game and advance to the Super Bowl. That started a public backlash, as well. This time the Chiefs were the beneficiaries of the overtime rule/coin toss.

The NFL first adopted an overtime format to settle ties in 1940 for championship games only, and in 1974 adopted it for regular-season games, as well. The league has tweaked its overtime rules several times since then, but they’re merely a variation of the same thing with the same fundamental flaw — the teams don’t get equal opportunities to score.

In the wake of Sunday’s Bills-Chiefs game, the internet has been flooded with various proposals to replace the current overtime format — “11 Solutions to Fix NFL Overtime Once and for All,” “Three Best Ways to Fix NFL Overtime …”, “A Sensible Overtime Proposal for All of Football.” Most of them are as convoluted as the NFL’s current format, which is so perplexing that even some of the players (Donovan McNabb, Najee Harris) don’t understand it.

Look, this isn’t difficult; we’re not trying to end world hunger here or fix Congress. There’s already a simple and proven method to settle ties in football — the college format. For the first two overtime periods, each team is given possession of the ball at the 25-yard line. If Team A scores a touchdown and Team B responds with a touchdown, the game continues. If Team A kicks a field goal and Team B responds with a touchdown, Team B wins. If the game is still tied after one overtime, teams are required to attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown. If the game is still tied after two overtimes, the ball is placed at the 3-yard line and each team is given a play to score until one team scores and one team does not.

It’s fair, relatively simple and exciting. There are rarely complaints about the college overtime format. No one can say that about the NFL format.