What The NFL Playoff Overtime Rule Changes Mean For Bettors

The NFL seems to react to every strange circumstance that pops up with a rule change. One of the more radical changes the football league has made in recent years is the introduction of a new overtime format for the playoffs. The move was done in response to New Orleans’ entry into the Super Bowl. The Saints won the NFC Championship over the Vikings thanks to a long field goal in overtime. People complained that that wasn’t a fitting conclusion to what had been a great game, and that it didn’t give the Vikings a chance to respond – in other words the same complaint that every overtime hater has had about the NFL’s overtime format for years.

The NFL took a very strange approach to changing the rule. They were seemingly afraid that the coaches wouldn’t buy into the proposed changes, so they waited until the coaches were all golfing together at the league meetings and pushed through the change. Given how little football coaches seem to like change they were probably right that the suggestion wouldn’t have been welcomed with open arms.

On the surface the new format is simple to understand. The team with the first possession in the overtime period has a chance to score and end the game as they always do – but only if they score a touchdown. If they fail to score or only score a field goal then the other team gets a chance to score. From that point on the game is played until one team has a lead – sudden death. The only other way a game can end on the first possession is if there is a safety.

So, what does this change mean for sports bettors? On the surface it doesn’t seem like it would have much impact at all – overtime is rare in the playoffs, and the changes seem subtle. When you look at it closely, though, you can see how the changes could have a lot more impact than you would expect. We’ll look at some of those impacts in a second, but before we do it is important to note that the impact here should not be a major part of your decision making process in handicapping games – you shouldn’t let the new format change your mind if you have a strong decision. It’s interesting and important, but not that interesting or important. Mostly, the rule creates things for bettors to be worried about and to be scared of, but not a lot they can act on. It’s just a bit more helplessness – like bettors need any more of that.

1. Coaches hate uncertainty – They hate heading into situations they have never been in before, or which could surprise them. Because no one has ever played this format before no one is comfortable with what the correct strategy would be, or how to use the format to your best advantage. For example, Tony Dungy has argued that if he had a strong defense he believed in and didn’t have a strong quarterback then he would be tempted to kick the ball away and take the side of the field with the wind advantage. If he got the stop or only gave up the field goal then he would be in good position to end it. There is also a statistical argument to be made that the correct move when starting overtime is to attempt an onside kick. If you onside kick and recover it then that counts as a possession for the receiving team and you could win the game with just a field goal. Because NFL coaches will have looked at these situations from every possible angle they will be at real risk of overthinking the issue. That means that they could take risks late in regulation in an attempt to avoid overtime, or that they could react in an overly bold manner in response to their fear of what the opposition could do. Any time you can’t predict what a coach is likely to do in a situation you have to be concerned as a bettor. I’d be more concerned if the coach had a history of being bold and aggressive – I’d be more concerned, for example, if Mike Martz was coaching than if Bill Cowher was.

2. It could lead to some strange reactions we haven’t anticipated – Beyond what we have already talked about there are a lot of things that coaches and teams might do because of the rule change. Anything that football teams wouldn’t normally do can lead to situations that aren’t normal, and that’s scary for bettors. There are so many potential examples of this. Kicking teams could be particularly aggressive in kick coverage in hopes of forcing a turnover. Defenses could be particularly aggressive if the offense is starting near the endzone in hopes of forcing a safety. If a NFL team intercepted in the endzone on the first possession they could take the touchback instead of running it out to avoid the risk of a costly turnover. If a team is down by a field goal with one possession left they will have absolutely nothing to lose, so they will be playing four down football and doing whatever it takes to get the win because they have absolutely nothing to lose. Football handicappers need to keep these things in mind.

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