How much would 10-minute overtimes have changed the past five years of the NFL?

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Since the NFL adopted its latest overtime rules in 2012, there have been just five ties across the league. I was in the locker room for one—the October ‘14 tie between the Panthers and Bengals—and no one feels great about them. Seemingly after every tie comes two things: a quote that the outcome felt like kissing one’s sister, and one young player on the team who didn’t know ties in the NFL were possible.

There may be more sister-smooching and oblivious rookies in the near future. League owners passed a rule Tuesday to shave five minutes off of the NFL’s regular-season overtime, which has consisted of 15 minutes of sudden-death play since the league added an extra period in 1974. Since the 2012 season there have been 83 overtime games, 22 of which have lasted more than 10 minutes. That works out to 26.5% of the past five seasons’ overtime games that, theoretically, would have been affected by Tuesday’s rule change.

I say theoretically because it would be logically irresponsible to assume that nothing would change if both teams knew they had 10 minutes rather than 15 minutes. Where a team may run it on second-and-four from midfield with 5:06 left to play in OT, they certainly would attempt a Hail Mary in that same position with six seconds remaining. *(You’ll see three examples of this in the 2015 season section below.)*

I took that into account as much as possible when reviewing every overtime game since 2012 in an effort to determine how many of those 22 that stretched beyond 10 minutes would have affected that season’s playoff picture. This exercise showed that several teams would have had their postseason fate altered had this rule change come along within the past five years—new division winners, a reshuffling of seeds and even a reigning Super Bowl champ that missed the playoffs the next season actually getting in.

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2012 season

Total regular season overtimes: 22
Overtime periods lasting more than 10 minutes: five
What would have changed: AFC playoff seeding

This season’s two Super Bowl teams each would have an extra tie on their record if play had stopped after just 10 extra minutes. Both of the 49ers’ meetings with the Rams went deep into overtime, and San Francisco went 1-0-1 in those games. A 10-4-2 49ers team still would have won the NFC West over the 11–5 Seahawks thanks to the divisional record tiebreaker, and the NFC playoff picture would remain unchanged. But things get tricky in the AFC.

The Ravens’ late-November win against over the Chargers needed a game-winning field goal with 1:12 left in OT. If that game had ended in a tie and nothing else in the season had changed, Baltimore finishes 9-5-1 rather than 10–6. The real Ravens edged the Bengals for the AFC North crown on the strength of a tiebreaker, but the alternate reality Ravens would have lost the division to Cincinnati and changed the complexion of the AFC playoffs.

In this world, the Ravens would have been the No. 6 seed, forced to go on the road to face the Texans (and backup T.J. Yates) to start their Super Bowl run, while the Bengals would have been the No. 4 seed hosting rookie Andrew Luck and the Colts in the first round.

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2013 season

Total regular season overtimes: 16
Overtime periods lasting more than 10 minutes: five
What would have changed: Nothing

Oddly enough, the new hypothetical ties added to this season don’t have as much bearing on playoff seeding as they would in the years before or after, though they could have had a big impact on that year’s draft order.

There’s just one outcome I can find in 2013 that might have changed things slightly, and that was the Vikings’ Week 13 win over the Bears on a game-winning Blair Walsh field goal with 1:47 left in overtime. Going into a Week 17 matchup with the 7-7-1 Packers, the Bears would have been 8-6-1 rather than 8–7.

The Packers won that game and the NFC North thanks to some late heroics by Aaron Rodgers, but Week 17 would have been win-or-go-home regardless of Week 13’s outcome. But perhaps that slight change in record affects the psychology of both teams enough to influence the outcome. Probably not.

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2014 season

Total regular season overtimes: 11
Overtime periods lasting more than 10 minutes: one
What would have changed: NFC South champion

The season-changing game was the one I previously mentioned in Cincinnati. The Bengals and Panthers played to a 37–37 tie after Mike Nugent’s 36-yard field goal went wide right as time expired. The Panthers went on to win the NFC South with a pitiful 7-8-1 record.

But consider the situation under the new rule change: The Nugent field goal that put the Bengals up 37–34 with 8:40 left in overtime would have given Cincinnati the lead with 3:40 left instead. At the five-minute mark, the Panthers had the ball at the Cincinnati 44, on their way to eventually kicking the tying field goal with 2:24 on the clock. Of course, with the seconds ticking away Carolina would have played differently, but clearly their chances of tying the game decrease with less time to run their offense.

Four weeks later, the Saints went to overtime with the 49ers. After both teams failed to get anything out of their first possession of the extra session, New Orleans fielded a punt at its nine-yard line with 7:43 to play. Before the Saints could get past their own 20, Drew Brees took sacks on consecutive plays and was stripped on the latter, which gave the 49ers a chip-shot field goal to win the game with 5:18 left.

In this new reality, maybe the Saints aren’t as aggressive so deep in their own territory, give more protection to Brees with time winding down and play with a tie in mind. That result gets New Orleans into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record over the Panthers, who finish 7–9 after their tie becomes a loss.

2015 season

Total regular season overtimes: 21
Overtime periods lasting more than 10 minutes: five
What would have changed: Less than you'd think at first glance

There would be no changes to this year’s playoff picture under the new rule, but three games stand out as examples of how one of the stats driving this thought experiment can be misleading.

Above, I noted that 26.5% of games in the past five years would have been affected by 10-minute overtime, but I didn’t mean that the outcomes would necessarily be different.

The Colts beat the Jaguars on a 27-yard field goal with 4:47 left in overtime, but it would have been a 25-yard try with 5:23 remaining coming out of an Indianapolis timeout. The Bengals hit a 42-yard field goal with 3:42 left to beat the Seahawks, but it would have been a 46-yard try with 5:08 remaining after their timeout. And the Broncos’ 34-yard field goal to beat the Browns came with 4:57 remaining on the clock—off by just three seconds.

Three of the five games that took more than 10 minutes off the overtime clock likely would have ended the same way under the new rule and avoided additional ties.

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2016 season

Total regular season overtimes: 13
Overtime periods lasting more than 10 minutes: six
What would have changed: Two wild-card teams

Denver and Tampa Bay narrowly missed out on the playoffs in 2016, but this rule change gives the Broncos a chance to defend their title and gives the Bucs their first taste of the postseason since ’07.

In Week 12, Denver took Kansas City to overtime, where the Chiefs won on a Cairo Santos field goal as time expired. But Denver had scored on the first drive of the extra period with a field goal, and Kansas City followed it up with a field goal to match with 4:23 left in the game. The Chiefs were in field-goal range at the five-minute mark, so let’s assume Santos makes that game-tying kick from a yard farther out and the game ends there in a draw. The Broncos would have finished the season 9-6-1 rather than 9–7.

In Week 16 against the Bills, the Dolphins won in the final minute of overtime with a field goal. But at the five-minute mark, both teams had come up empty on one possession and the Bills were backed up in their own territory. It’s fair to project this one as a tie. That would have left Miami with the same 9-6-1 record as the Broncos. The two didn’t play head-to-head and would have had identical 6-5-1 conference records. The next tiebreaker—record against common opponents—would have swung the wild-card spot in favor of the Broncos (Denver went 2–3 against New England, Cincinnati, Tennessee and San Diego, while Miami was 1–4).

In the NFC, a Week 8 game between the Bucs and Raiders could have changed the fortunes of the Lions. With five minutes left in overtime, Oakland sent its punt team onto the field after its second overtime possession failed. The Raiders eventually won on a 41-yard touchdown pass with less than two minutes left, but a tie here would have left the Bucs with a 9-6-1 record at year’s end, edging 9–7 Detroit for the sixth seed in the NFC and earning a trip to Seattle just a few weeks after they had knocked off the Seahawks at home.

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