The National Football League’s postseason begins this weekend with a new set of rules -- for overtime, at least.
No longer will an overtime playoff game end on a first-possession field goal, as the New Orleans Saints’ 31-28 win against the Minnesota Vikings did in last season’s National Football Conference championship game.
The NFL’s sudden-death system was modified -- for the playoffs only -- to try to guarantee each team a possession, unless the team that receives the overtime kickoff scores a touchdown on that drive. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, whose team hosts the New York Jets in a first-round game on Jan. 8, was among those who needed a refresher on the new rules.
“I kind of forgot that it just applies to field goals on that first series,” Manning, 34, told reporters yesterday. “I’m glad coach (Jim) Caldwell kind of briefed us on it, because anything can happen in these playoff games.”
During the regular season, the first team to score any points in overtime wins. Starting with this weekend’s four games, if the first team to receive the ball in overtime kicks a field goal, the other team gets the ball for one possession. If that team also kicks a field goal, whoever scores next wins.
The rule change was approved 28-4 by NFL owners in March, two months after the Saints won the NFC championship. The Vikings never touched the ball in overtime as the Saints took the kickoff, drove 39 yards and advanced to the Super Bowl on a 40-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.
“It kind of applies to your thinking in the first four quarters that when we get down there, we want to try to get touchdowns,” said Manning, whose Colts lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl last season after beating the Jets in the American Football Conference title game. “Field goals, while you take them all day, you want to try to get touchdowns.”
While the rule was changed for the playoffs to give both teams a better chance of having the ball on offense, each team had at least one possession in 16 of the 18 overtime games during the regular season.
The Seattle Seahawks host the Saints in this weekend’s first playoff game on Jan. 8, followed by the Jets at the Colts. The next day, the Baltimore Ravens visit the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles host the Green Bay Packers. The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears have first-round byes.
Tony Dungy, who coached the Colts to a Super Bowl title and is now an NFL analyst for NBC, said the rule change will force coaches to face decisions they haven’t had before.
“If you have the ball first and you have to kick a long field goal, that puts a lot of pressure on you as a coach,” Dungy, 55, said during a media conference call. “Do I take it and give the other team field position if we miss? And even if I kick the field goal and make it, the other team has a chance to come down and score.”
Dungy said that with the possibility of getting the ball back, some teams that win the overtime coin toss may elect to kick instead of receive. He offered scenarios in which teams have a strong defense or would have the wind at their back on the second possession in an outdoor stadium.
“I think they’re going to play through that in their minds, especially if you’ve got a defensive team like the Jets,” Dungy said. “I don’t know that you’d give the ball to Peyton Manning first, but you’d sure have to think about it.”
The only other way for an overtime game to end on the first possession is by a defensive touchdown or a safety.
Jets coach Rex Ryan said he plans to have special-teams coach Mike Westhoff go over the postseason overtime rules with players the day before the game.
“We have a good grasp of it and, no, we will not defer,” Ryan told reporters yesterday. “We will actually take the ball if we win the coin toss in overtime.”
The NFL’s postseason has had at least one overtime game each of the past four years.