“Oh my gosh, this is the most perfect quarterback play to finish a fourth quarter, like, maybe ever!” declared color commentator Tony Romo after watching Bills signal caller Josh Allen and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes lead their teams to a combined 25 points within the final two minutes of the Divisional Round playoff game last Sunday.
Mahomes and Allen took turns acting as the most impactful force on the field—until they were usurped by a coin.
In an offensively slanted game, in which five of the previous nine possessions had ended in touchdowns, the Chiefs, by virtue of winning the coin toss, only needed a touchdown to guarantee victory.
Josh Allen went 27/37 with 4 TD, 329 passing, & 68 rushing in a career defining playoff game w/ 5 lead changes… and it all came down to this:
— Barstool Sportsbook (@BSSportsbook) January 24, 2022
The Chiefs’ home crowd reacted to the toss as if they’d just seen a 50-yard completion. One model pegged the Chiefs’ odds of winning the game at 63% immediately after the toss, a 25 percentage-point increase in win probability over if they’d have lost the toss.
It came as no surprise, then, that Mahomes would march down the field and end the game with a touchdown pass to tight end Travis Kelce. Allen didn’t get to touch the ball again. Former players, analysts and fans decried the NFL’s overtime rules, noting that 10 of the last 11 overtime playoff games have been won by the team that won the coin toss, with seven of those losing teams never getting an offensive possession.
Some people planted their flags firmly in the “get a stop” camp. For many others, however, seeing a win-or-go-home playoff game end this way feels as arbitrary as deciding an election by picking a name out of a bowl (which, it turns out, is also a thing).
The pre-overtime coin toss didn’t always carry a competitive advantage. From 1974 to 1993, back when just a field goal won the game, teams that started overtime with possession won and lost overtime games at identical rates of 47%, with the remaining games resulting in ties.
Then, as kickers got more proficient and the kickoff moved back from the 35-yard line to the 30-yard line, teams had a shorter distance to go and started with better field position. Consequently, teams that won the toss between 1994 and 2010 won a whopping 60% of the time. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the 2010 NFC Championship Game, when the Saints needed just a 39-yard drive, aided by two penalties, to win in overtime.
Prior to the 2012 regular season, the NFL announced that only a touchdown on the opening drive of overtime, and not a field goal, would end the game. Yet, teams that won the toss have still gone 86-67-10 since 2012. The 10-1 playoff record over that span may be a little misleading, as that has been nowhere near the trend over a much larger sample, but the rule change by no means solved the problem.
Allen had just played one of the best stretches of eight consecutive quarters in the history of his position, and yet fans were deprived of seeing the quarterback attempt another game-tying drive.
In reality, only 21% of overtimes have ended on the first possession over the last 10 years, but those games have been particularly prominent, including the last time Mahomes similarly led his team to a game-tying field goal with under a minute left in a playoff game: the 2019 AFC Championship against New England. That time, though, the MVP was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch Tom Brady end the game with a touchdown.
Prior to 2010, only 7.5% of overtime opening drives ended in touchdowns, with far more ending in field goals, but now teams try to put the game away more aggressively. Additionally, offenses are better than they used to be. NFL teams have averaged 23.0 points per game over the past 10 seasons, up from the 21.5 average over the previous decade and 20.3 the decade before that.
Although the college football system requires both teams to play offense and defense, it’s not without its own flaws. Studies have shown that the team to play offense second has a significant advantage due to knowing exactly what is needed to match or surpass the other team’s result.
This past off-season, the Baltimore Ravens proposed a “spot and choose” rule for overtime. Under this suggestion, one team would spot the ball somewhere on the field to begin the period, and the other team would choose whether to play offense or defense.
A similar, perhaps more fun, variation would be to have the two head coaches partake in a silent auction for the right to start with the football: Each team would pick a spot on the field, and the team that bids with the inferior field position would get to possess the ball first at that spot.
One imagines the league will consider a change, even though the controversy on Sunday didn’t turn away the 51.7 million viewers who tuned into the instant classic during overtime. Despite the outcry, fans love extra football. There have been 42 conference championship games since the turn of the century, and the six that have been tied at the end of regulation rank as the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 9th and 21st most-watched.