NFL Overtime Rules Explained
Some of the most dramatic moments in NFL history have occurred during nail-biting overtime periods at the end of tight games.
The league officially added overtime in 1974, but the rules governing this extra period have evolved over the years. They changed again in the aftermath of an epic showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills in January 2022.
This guide provides a rundown of the current NFL overtime rules, explains how they have changed over the years and recaps some of the most memorable moments from the history books.
Current NFL Overtime Rules for Regular Season Games
- A game will go into overtime if it is tied at the end of regular time. The referee tosses a coin to decide which team enjoys possession first. The away team captain calls the toss.
- There is a three-minute intermission between the end of regular time and the start of overtime.
- Overtime lasts for a maximum of 10 minutes. Each team must possess the ball – or at least have the opportunity to possess the ball – during this 10-minute period. The only exception is if the team that receives the first possession scores a touchdown on that opening possession.
- It features sudden death play, whereby the game will end on any score: a touchdown, a field goal or a safety. This continues until a winner is determined. There is no need for a conversion point if a touchdown is scored.
- If the score is still tied at the end of overtime, the game results in a tie. The most recent example was in September 2022, when a game between the Colts and the Texans finished 20-20 after Indianapolis kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed a potential game-winning field goal in overtime.
- Each team is awarded two timeouts during overtime.
- Coaches cannot make instant replay challenges in overtime. Only the replay official can initiate reviews.
NFL Overtime Rules for Playoff Games
- Playoff games cannot end in a tie, so the teams must continue until a winner is finally determined. If the score is tied at the end of the first overtime period, a second will be played.
- The teams will play as many overtime periods as necessary to provide a winner. There is a two-minute intermission between each overtime period.
- There will not be a half-time intermission following the second period of overtime, and each team will be given three timeouts per half.
- The same timing rules featured at the end of the second and fourth periods of regulation time will apply to the end of the second and fourth overtime periods.
- If there is no winner at the end of a fourth overtime period, the referee will toss the coin again to determine which team gains possession at the start of the fifth period.
The Evolution of NFL Overtime Rules
There were 256 tied games between 1920 and 1973. The league decided to add a 15-minute period of sudden death overtime at the end of games in 1974. Between 1974 and 2011, 494 regular season games went to overtime, and 17 ended in ties after the teams could not be split during the extra period.
In 2010, the NFL changed its overtime rules for postseason games. It ensured that a successful field goal no longer won the game on the first possession. The team that won the coin toss would prevail around 60% of the time prior to that rule change, as they would get within field goal range and secure victory without the opposing team ever touching the ball. The new rule mandated that only a touchdown on the first possession would win the game.
In 2012, the NFL instituted the modified overtime system for regular season games too. It had proved popular with fans, which led to the decision. Five years later, the NFL announced another major change. Overtime was reduced from 15 minutes to 10 minutes. The change was recommended by the NFL’s competition committee, and it was also designed to improve player safety. It has led to slightly more frequent ties: two in the 2018 season and one apiece in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
The latest change came after that dramatic game between the Chiefs and the Bills in the 2021 AFC Divisional Round. It was the first game in which both quarterbacks – Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen threw for at least 300 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions and rushed for at least 50 yards. The lead changed hands four times, and 25 points were scored during the exhilarating final two minutes of regulation time. Kansas City won the coin toss and scored a TD to secure victory, without Allen seeing the ball in overtime. The rules were changed to ensure that each team must receive possession of the ball, or have an opportunity to receive possession, before a winner is determined in overtime.
The 10 Greatest Overtime Games in NFL History
Arizona Cardinals vs. Green Bay Packers, 2009 Wild Card Round
This memorable game produced one of the wildest shootouts in history. Aaron Rodgers was in his second season as Green Bay’s starting QB, and he went head-to-head with veteran Kurt Warner. The offenses combined for 92 points, and Warner passed for 379 yards and five touchdowns, with just four incompletions. It went to overtime and Rodgers – who went 28-of-42 for 423 yards with four touchdowns – fumbled on the opening driver, allowing Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby to return for the game-winning score.
San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Giants, 1980 Regular Season Game
This is the only regular season game on our list, but we felt in warranted inclusion thanks to a stirring 49ers comeback led by a young Joe Montana. The Niners were down 35-7 at half-time, but Montana led them to a 28-0 second-half run to force overtime, and a 36-yard field goal from Ray Wersching won it.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Minnesota Vikings, 1998 NFC Championship Game
Many fans were hoping to see the 15-1 Vikings take on defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl at the end of the 1998 season. Everything went according to script, as Minnesota led throughout the game, and they had an opportunity to extend their advantage to 10 points with two minutes left on the clock. However, kicker Gary Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal – his first miss of the season – and the Falcons restored parity. To make matters worse, Morten Anderson nailed a 38-yard field goal for Atlanta to win it.
New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons, Super Bowl LI
The Falcons extended their lead over the Patriots to 25 points when they scored a touchdown at the start of the second half at Super Bowl LI. However, the Patriots clawed their way back into contention, and Tom Brady led them on a last-gasp 91-yard touchdown drive followed by a successful two-point conversion to tie the game. He then led a nine-play, 75-yard drive in overtime to win the game.
New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders, 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff Game
This game featured another remarkable New England comeback led by Brady. The Raiders led 13-3 heading into the fourth quarter. However, Brady responded with a touchdown drive. He then appeared to fumble when sacked by cornerback Charles Woodson, but he earned a reprieve via the little-known “tuck rule,” which led to the play being ruled as an incomplete pass. A 45-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri sent the game into overtime, and he won it with another kick. The tuck rule was later abandoned, few Raiders fans will forget it.
Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Oilers, 1992 AFC Divisional Playoff Game
The Bills found themselves 32 points down in the third quarter of this playoff clash, and things went from bad to worse when QB Jim Kelly was forced off with an injury. Up stepped backup Frank Reich, who inspired an immense comeback. Buffalo managed to take the lead, only for Al Del Greco’s field goal to take the game into overtime. Yet the Bills’ comeback was complete when Steve Christie kicked the game-winning field goal to tee up yet another overtime run.
Miami Dolphins vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 1971 AFC Divisional Playoff Game
The Dolphins and the Chiefs played the longest game in NFL history on Christmas Day in 1971. It went into double-overtime before Garo Yepremian landed a 37-yard field goal to hand the Dolphins a 27-24 win after 82 minutes and 40 seconds of action. It was a tough result for Chiefs running back Ed Podolak, who had 195 scrimmage yards, eight receptions and two touchdowns, including 155 kick return yards.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos, 2013 AFC Divisional Playoff Game
This was one of the tightest postseason clashes of all time. It was 14-14 after the first quarter, 21-21 at half-time and 28-28 after the third quarter. Broncos QB Peyton Manning put his team within touching distance of victory with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the fourth, and the Denver defense dug in. However, with less than 40 seconds left on the clock, Joe Flacco picked out Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones, who surged past the Denver secondary for a 70-yard, game-tying touchdown. The Ravens won via a Justin Tucker field goal in the second overtime period and went on to win the Super Bowl for a second time.
San Diego Chargers vs. Miami Dolphins, 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff Game
The Epic in Miami will always be remembered as one of the greatest games of all time. It was played in scorching temperatures, and many records were set. The Chargers raced into a 24-0 first quarter lead, but the Dolphins rallied in the second and embarked on a 17-0 run. Momentum swung back and forth throughout the remainder of the game, and there was less than a minute remaining when Chargers QB Dan Fouts tied the game with a touchdown pass. Tight end Kellen Winslow, who had 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown, managed to heroically block a potential game-winning Dolphins field goal to send it into overtime. Rolf Benirschke kicked from 29 yards to eventually earn the Chargers a famous 41-38 victory.
Baltimore Colts vs. New York Giants, 1958 NFL Championship Game
Many view this as the greatest game ever played. It was the first NFL playoff game to go into overtime, and it is credited with kick-starting the NFL phenomenon we all know and love today. The game featured 17 Hall of Famers, who engaged in a ferocious battle for glory. Baltimore receiver Raymond Berry ended up with 12 receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown. QB Johnny Unitas led the Colts from their own 14-yard line on a thrilling drive that ended with a game-tying field goal, and he then produced a 13-play, 80-yard drive on Baltimore’s first possession in overtime to clinch the win.