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Overtime rule undermines NFL’s best weekend ever

A comeback attempt by Tom Brady and the Bucs had things tied up with less than a minute left, but the Rams O powered to a game-winning FG that sends them to the NFC Championship, where they'll face the 49ers.

The divisional round delivered. In every way possible. Four games. Four walk-off endings. But the best of the quartet of high-stakes postseason games left an unsatisfying feeling for everyone except the Chiefs and their fans.

The overtime rule no longer makes sense. A first-drive touchdown shouldn’t end the game. Not with the rules so skewed toward offenses. In Bills-Chiefs, whoever got the ball first was scoring a touchdown and winning the game. Thus, the coin toss before overtime decided the game.

There’s an essay in Playmakers about the problem that has lingered since the league hatched a clumsy half-measure after the 2009 NFC Championship, when the Saints won the coin toss to start overtime, secured a few first downs (thanks to a couple of questionable calls), and punched a ticket to Miami with a walk-off field goal against the Vikings. The solution reached at the time wasn’t to guarantee the team that kicks off to start overtime an opportunity to possess the ball, no matter what. The solution was to guarantee a crack at matching a field goal only.

In tonight’s game, Josh Allen and the Bills should have a shot to match the touchdown scored by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. It should have happened in the 2011 wild-card round, when Tim Tebow connected with Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard, first-play touchdown against the Steelers. It should have happened in the 2014 NFC Championship, when Seattle capped a comeback with a first-drive touchdown against the Packers. It should have happened when the Cardinals scored a first-drive touchdown against the Packers in the 2015 divisional round. It should have happened in Super Bowl LI, when the Patriots scored a touchdown on the opening drive of overtime against the Falcons. It should have happened in the 2018 AFC Championship, when the Patriots kept Mahomes on the sideline for the final drive of his spectacular first season as a starter and scored a touchdown to advance to Super Bowl LIII.

And it should have happened tonight. The Bills should have had a chance to match.

Maybe, in the next playoff game that unfolds like this, the team that loses the coin toss will try an onside kick. (Unfortunately, it’s currently much harder than it used to be to recover an onside kick.) Or maybe there won’t be another next playoff game that unfolds like this. Maybe the NFL will finally realize that the current rule must be replaced with something more fair and equitable.

Former NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino notes on Twitter that the league wants to preserve the sudden-death quality of overtime, so that fans won’t “leave your seat.” This assumes that fans wouldn’t otherwise be glued to the TV throughout all of overtime in a playoff game. This also assumes that fans will find the final outcome fair and satisfying when, as has happened far too often, the team that wins the coin toss advances.

Is it enough to give the kicking team a chance to match? The Bills, if they’d scored, could have gone for two (assuming the Chiefs attempted and made a one-point kick). Still, a pair of touchdowns would have resulted in the Bills kicking off again; there will always be an imbalance to that approach.

The right solution guarantees an equal number of possessions and declares a winner based on who makes a stop. Several years ago, we proposed (and the Spring League and the XFL eventually adopted) a penalty-shot system with teams taking alternating cracks at two-point conversions, whether three or five before it goes one-for-one, back and forth until one team scores and the other doesn’t. (Under our formulation of the procedure, the offense and defense for each team would be on the field at opposite ends of the stadium at the same time, going back and forth with 40 seconds between attempts.)

If the goal is to ensure that fans won’t walk away, something like that would cause them to staple their asses to their easy chairs. And, more than anything else, it would be fair.

That’s all we’re looking for. Something that seems fair, at a visceral level. Tonight’s outcome simply doesn’t fee that way -- except for Chiefs fans who were on the wrong side of the coin flip three years ago.

For Bills fans, the prospect of waiting three years for karma to come crashing through a card table doesn’t seem very palatable right now. Win or lose, they needed to emerge from this game believing that the approach to deciding a winner after 60 minutes of regulation play was fair. The current approach simply is not.