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Blogging the NFL Rulebook – Playoff Overtime

[2010 note: these rules no longer apply after the changes made in the offseason.]

Regular season games are limited to one 15-minute overtime period, as the Eagles found out in Week 11. But what happens if a playoff game is tied after 15 minutes of overtime?

The relevant text: Rule 16, Section 1 (edited for clarity)

  • [Article 1] The sudden-death system of determining the winner shall prevail when the score is tied at the end of the regulation playing time of all NFL games. Under this system, the team scoring first during overtime play herein provided for, shall be the winner of the game and the game is automatically ended upon any score (including a safety) or when a score is awarded by the Referee for a palpably unfair act.
  • [Article 2] At the end of regulation playing time, the Referee shall immediately toss a coin at the center of the field, in accordance with rules pertaining to a usual pregame toss (4-2-2). The visiting team captain is to again call the toss.
  • [Article 3] Following a three-minute intermission after the end of regular game, play shall continue by 15-minute periods with a two-minute intermission between each such over-time period with no halftime intermission. At the beginning of the third overtime period, the captain who lost the coin toss prior to the first overtime period shall have the first choice of the three privileges in Rule 4, Section 2, Article 2, unless the team that won the coin toss deferred…. At the end of each extra 15-minute period, starting with the end of the first one, teams must change goals….
  • [Article 6] Near the end of any period or during the last two (2) minutes of the second, fourth, etc., extra periods, the usual rules in regard to attempts to conserve time shall apply (4-7-1 and 5-2-1). The rules for time outs shall be the same as in a regular game, including the last two (2) minutes of the second and fourth quarters.

In a nutshell:

  • Playoff games can have multiple overtimes.
  • Teams switch sides of the field between each overtime period.
  • Play continues until a team scores.
  • Regular timing rules, including the two-minute warning at the end of each half, apply.
  • Teams get three timeouts per half.
  • The third overtime would start with a kickoff, and would not continue from where the second overtime left off.
  • There is a coin toss before the first overtime period. The winner of the toss can choose to receive, kick, pick an end of the field to defend, or defer the decision.
  • The team that wins the overtime coin toss can defer the decision to receive, kick, or choose an end of the field until before the 3rd overtime period. This will never, ever happen.


  • There have been five multiple overtime games in NFL history, though none went beyond a second overtime.
  1. Dallas Texans 20, Houston Oilers 17, 1962 AFL Championship Game. The “kick to the clock” game.
  2. Miami Dolphins 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24, 1971 AFC Divisional Playoff.
  3. Oakland Raiders 37, Baltimore Colts 31, 1977 AFC Divisional Playoff. The “Ghost to the Post” game.
  4. Cleveland Browns 23, New York Jets 20, 1986 AFC Divisional Playoff.
  5. Carolina Panthers 29, St. Louis Rams 23, 2003 NFC Divisional Playoff.

Still unclear:

  • If a game goes into a fifth overtime, what happens? Does the team that won the overtime coin toss get to make the decision receive the kickoff or is there a new coin toss? (The college system has the winner of the original coin toss make the decision in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th overtimes and so on.)

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