Football played by human beings is not like a Madden game, where the “progressive fatigue” factor can be switched off. The players we like to think of as giant Energizer Bunnies get tired. Case in point: the Buffalo Bills defense on Sunday.
The Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills’ opponents in an exhilarating AFC divisional round playoff game, ran 16 plays in their final three possessions. The Chiefs covered 194 yards and scored two touchdowns, plus a field goal that they needed to send the game into overtime. They faced third down on only two of those 16 plays, converting both.
After the Chiefs scored a touchdown on the first possession of overtime to win, 42-36, the grumbling began: the Bills should have been given a chance to match that touchdown. But that is not how the NFL rules for overtime work. Should they be changed? Maybe. Maybe not.
“I love the concept of sudden death,” Rick Gosselin, who covered the NFL for decades for the Dallas Morning News, tells the Guardian. “In hockey, after one team scores a goal in overtime, does the other team get the chance to match it?”
Gosselin adds: “There are three elements of football: offense, defense and special teams. Build a defense that can force a punt in overtime. Giving both teams a possession favors the offenses. If you want to go all in on offense, keep winning those coin tosses. If you want to win a championship, build a defense that can be as effective as your offense for 60 minutes and beyond.”
Suppose Buffalo had answered with a touchdown, which, considering this game, was quite possible. Then what? Then the next score wins? Declare a tie and schedule a replay? A penalty shootout? As much fun as this game was, these guys can’t play on forever.
A day after the game, Kansas City coach Andy Reid said of both teams getting at least one possession in overtime: “I wouldn’t be opposed to it. It’s a hard thing. It was great for us last night, but is it great for the game which is the most important thing we should all be looking out for? To make things equal, it probably needs to be able to hit both offenses, both defenses.”
Much attention afterward went to Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen’s final play of the day: calling tails to lose the coin flip that decided which team would get the ball first in overtime. Had the Bills won the toss, Allen very well might have marched Buffalo to a winning touchdown.
After all, he had been magnificent, driving the Bills for two touchdowns on Buffalo’s last two possessions of the game. The Chiefs’ defense was gassed, too, giving up a total of 150 yards in 23 plays. Allen gained 23 vital yards on six valiant scrambles on the first fourth-quarter drive. He did not deserve to lose the game.
“We should never let a football game be determined from a coin,” Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins said. “Like, I think that’s the most craziest rule in sports. Like, you can fight your entire fight the whole game, and then the game comes down to a 50-50 chance of a coin toss. Like, this ain’t Vegas. Like, we’re not at the casino table. Like, this ain’t no 50-50 bet and there ain’t even no 50-50 bet. And it’s just crazy that that was the outcome.”
That is an A-plus quote, but the coin flip did not determine the winner, just the first team to get the chance to score a touchdown. Had Kansas City managed only a field goal, or punted, Buffalo would have got their chance. The Bills knew the rules.
Only two players on the Kansas City defense – cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and safety Juan Thornhill – played all 64 snaps. Meanwhile, seven Buffalo players played all 76 of their team’s defensive snaps. Kansas City used 21 players on defense, compared with 17 for the Bills.
There is also the question of how the Bills let the game go to overtime in the first place. All the Bills needed to do was to keep the Chiefs out of field-goal range (or from completing a Hail Mary pass) on their last drive of regulation. Kansas City, starting from their own 25-yard line, gained 44 yards in two plays covering 10 seconds before kicking the tying field goal.
Much to their credit, many members of Bills’ Mafia took to social media to comment that Buffalo were way too mushy on those two plays, refusing to jam the Chiefs’ receivers at the line of scrimmage to make it harder for them to get open.
Others have suggested that the Bills should have squibbed the kickoff before that drive, starting the clock when the ball was touched, rather than booming it into the end zone for a touchback. (That strategy carries risks: What if the kick goes out of bounds, or only 15 yards, or is returned for a touchdown?)
In any case, special teams helped determine the outcome – the way it should be. The procedure in college football, which does not use kickoffs or punts in overtime, is lacking. Beginning with the third overtime period, teams alternate two-point conversion tries, not even full 25-yard drives.
Even 21-year-olds only have so much energy. As delightful as Sunday’s game was to watch, it is unrealistic to expect much more than what we got from men who had rammed into or run around each other for 3 hours 15 minutes, running up 974 total yards of offense – especially coming after a newly extended 17-game season.
Prior to Sunday, the most notable playoff game using these overtime rules came in Super Bowl LI five years ago, when the New England Patriots scored on the first possession of overtime to beat Atlanta, 34-28. The Falcons did not get much sympathy after the game, because they had a 28-3 lead late in the third quarter and got five chances to stop Tom Brady.
The Chiefs scored on six of seven possessions after halftime. The Bills had enough chances to win the game. Why should have they gotten another chance, just because the shootout narrative demanded it? Rules are rules, and life is not always fair, as humans say.