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The NFL’s overtime rules, explained

This is how overtime works in the NFL.

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s remarkable how often the NFL’s overtime rules are either mistaken, or simply not known. Honestly, I don’t blame anyone for having a hard time understanding them — because even players are confused a lot of the time.

Case in point: Najee Harris. The Steelers’ rookie running back didn’t know NFL games could even end in a tie until it happened to Pittsburgh in Week 10 against the Lions. This isn’t an isolated incident either, because time and time again we see players and coaches lost in the overtime rules, most infamously Donovan McNabb in 2008. Part of this is how it differs from the college game, and the other aspect is that modifying and tweaking the NFL overtime rules is common practice in NFL owners meetings.

So, in the event we could see another potential tie this season, or overtime in the playoffs, let’s break down exactly what the procedure is. Directly from the NFL rulebook on the matter.

Regular season overtime rules

The official overtime period is 10 minutes, regardless of what happens in scoring. If nobody scores after 10 minutes, the result is a tie. We’re starting here, because it’s the simplest part of overtime.

The extra period begins with a coin toss, with the visiting team choosing whether to kick, or return. Teams will always, without exception, decide to receive the ball to start overtime. The reason for this is because there’s an inherent advantage to getting the ball first. We’ll work through this like a flowchart.

  • If Team A receives the extra period kickoff and scores a touchdown, they win the game.
  • If Team A receives the extra period kickoff and scores a field goal, they then kick to Team B as normal.
  • If Team B then fails to score, the game ends. Team A wins.
  • If Team B scores a touchdown in response to Team A’s field goal, Team B wins the game.
  • If Team B scores a field goal in response to Team A’s field goal, they continue and the next score by either team wins the game.

Each team is given two timeouts during overtime, however they may not challenge any plays — even if they have challenge flags left from the regular time period. All play reviews will be initiated by the booth.

Playoff overtime rules

When it comes to the playoffs, things are far more straightforward when it comes to overtime. The game cannot end in a tie, for obvious reasons.

The period for extra time is extended to a full 15 minute quarter, and while the same kickoff procedures apply, from there it’s much more like any other game of football.

If the score is tied at the end of the 15 minute period, another is played until the time ends with a clear winner. At that point the game is over.

There is a two minute break between extra time periods in the playoffs, and teams are granted three timeouts to be used in a “half” which is defined as two extra time periods. Regular football timing applies, with a two minute warning occurring at the end of the second and fourth overtime periods, as needed.

Should the game need a fifth overtime period, there will be another coin toss — essentially like starting overtime from scratch.

Much like the regular season, there remain no challenges teams can use to review a play. Once again, all reviews must come from the booth.