LAS VEGAS — There was a feeling of collective confusion among those inside Allegiant Stadium on Sunday as the team captains of the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers made their way toward midfield for the overtime coin toss. A detailed explainer appeared on the arena’s giant video screens to help those in the building, but many of the millions of viewers watching Super Bowl LVIII needed a refresher.
What are the new overtime rules again?
It was the second Super Bowl to go into overtime — the New England Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons in overtime in Super Bowl LI in 2017 — but it was the first with the revised postseason overtime rules that ensured both teams would get the ball. The Chiefs went on to beat the 49ers in a 25-22 thriller to win their third Super Bowl in five years.
After Harrison Butker of the Chiefs kicked a field goal with three seconds left in regulation to knot the score at 19, the game went to overtime. The first test run for the NFL’s overtime rule change would come under the brightest of spotlights. The 49ers won the overtime coin toss and coach Kyle Shanahan elected to receive the ball first.
“We went through all of the analytics,” Shanahan said after the game. “We wanted the ball third. If both teams matched and scored, we wanted to be the ones who had a chance to go win.”
Kyle Shanahan detailed why the 49ers took the ball after winning the coin toss in overtime.
“We wanted the ball third. If both teams matched and scored, we wanted to be the ones who had the chance to go win.” pic.twitter.com/MyuRRpGvTA
— KNBR (@KNBR) February 12, 2024
Shanahan prioritized setting the 49ers up with the ball on a potential all-important third possession of overtime if the game remained tied after each team’s opening drive. But it never got that far.
On their opening possession of overtime, the 49ers drove down the field but stalled inside the red zone. A Jake Moody field goal put San Francisco up 22-19 but left the door open for quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
Mahomes methodically led the Kansas City offense down the field before hitting Mecole Hardman for the game-winning, 3-yard touchdown.
Hardman caps Chiefs return with Super Bowl-clinching touchdown, not that he remembers
THE CHIEFS ARE BACK-TO-BACK SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS! pic.twitter.com/ZzfhTyUXg9
— NFL (@NFL) February 12, 2024
Since the 49ers lost, Shanahan has been subject to plenty of scrutiny from those on the outside looking in.
“He’s a pretty smart guy, so there’s got to be a reason why he did that,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Shanahan’s decision to take the ball first. “Everybody’s got their own philosophy on it, and I get it. I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong way, but we felt you kick off first.”
The counterargument is that if Shanahan had put his defense on the field first, the 49ers would’ve known whether they needed a field goal or touchdown to tie or win the game before their offense took the field. In theory, that would better position them to formulate an offensive approach.
Additionally, if the 49ers had kicked off and were able to force a Chiefs punt, they could have given their offense a shorter field to operate with. But that’s not how it worked out.
“We got that field goal,” Shanahan said. “So we knew we had to hold them to at least a field goal. If we did, we felt it was in our hands after that.”
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It’s easy to criticize Shanahan since his defense went on to give up the game-deciding touchdown, but, as Reid insinuated, nobody would be criticizing Shanahan if the 49ers had gotten the stop and won.
Ironically, it was the Chiefs’ dramatic overtime win over the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round of the playoffs on Jan. 23, 2022, that resulted in the NFL’s overtime rule change. Two years ago, after a wild ending to regulation, the teams headed to overtime tied at 36. The Chiefs got the ball first in the extra period, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes found tight end Travis Kelce for an 8-yard touchdown on the opening drive to win the game 42-36.
Quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills offense had played at an elite level all game, but they never had an opportunity to possess the ball and answer the Chiefs. A popular sentiment emerged that the structure was unfair.
In response, the NFL studied the data surrounding postseason overtime games since the 2010 rule change that moved away from a sudden-death period and no longer allowed teams to win with a field goal on their opening possession. In the 12 games under that format, the team that won the coin toss and chose to receive won 10 times.
That helped drive a playoff rule change — just two months after the controversial Chiefs-Bills game — that would allow each team to possess the ball in overtime. The only exception would be if a defensive touchdown or safety occurred on the opening possession of the overtime period. In that case, the game would end immediately. If the score remained tied after each team’s opening possession, the next score would win the game.
The rule change was largely praised.
“We always listen to the fans — that’s an important thing,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time. “We’re always looking to improve, and I think what really drove the decision was the database, ultimately, and looking at the facts and what’s happened.”
The revised version of postseason overtime is broken up into 15-minute periods. If time runs out, then the clock simply resets, just like when a new quarter starts in regulation. There are no coach’s challenges in overtime, and all reviews have to be triggered by the replay official. After the initial possessions, the game continues until someone scores.
On Sunday, both teams knew about the rules beforehand, so they had time to prepare their strategies if the situation emerged.
The 49ers offense would’ve had a chance to take the field regardless of whether Shanahan elected to kick or receive the ball to start overtime. That added intriguing elements of strategy, competitive balance and suspense that undoubtedly added to the drama at the end of the game.
It’s only one game, but the takeaway from Super Bowl LVIII’s remarkable finish is that the NFL’s postseason overtime rule should be here to stay.
(Photo: George Walker IV / Associated Press)