The first time an NFL playoff game went into overtime, Alan Ameche plunged into the end zone from the 1-yard line to give the Baltimore Colts the 1958 NFL championship. The last time an NFL playoff game went into overtime, the New Orleans Saints won the coin toss, drove 39 yards into field-goal range, and won the NFC Championship on Garrett Hartley’s kick.
Ameche barrelling across the goal line was a much more satisfying ending to a football game than Hartley ending things while the opposing offense could only watch. And that’s why the NFL has changed the rules to ensure that no future playoff game will ever end on a field goal before both teams have had a chance to possess the ball.
A few months after Hartley’s kick, NFL owners voted to change the overtime rules for the postseason so that both teams have the opportunity to possess the ball at least once, unless the team that receives the kickoff scores a touchdown on its first possession. So far that rule has never been put to use, because none of last year’s playoff games went to overtime. But if a playoff game this year ends the fourth quarter tied, we’ll see modified sudden-death for the first time.
The reason for the modified approach is simple: In sudden-death overtime, winning the coin toss becomes a huge advantage, as the team that receives the kick knows it only has to drive into field-goal range to win the game. With the modified sudden-death format, the importance of the coin toss is lessened, and the team that wins the toss has a greater incentive to get more aggressive on offense and try to win the game with a touchdown. If the team that wins the toss kicks a field goal, that team then kicks off, and the other team has a chance to win the game with a touchdown, or to extend the game with a field goal, at which point the game would become pure sudden death, with the victory going to the next team that scores.
The best way to determine the winner when the fourth quarter ends in a tie has long been a debate in football: Some people like sudden death, others like the college format in which teams alternate possessions, and still others say the fairest way would be an auction style in which one team would choose the yard line to kick off from, and then the other team would choose whether to kick or receive.
But what no one disputes is that the modified sudden-death format is going to make things exciting for fans. Now we just need a game to end the fourth quarter tied.