NFC South reporter
Sunday night in Las Vegas brought us not only the second overtime game in Super Bowl history, but more importantly, the first overtime game since the NFL changed its postseason rules to ensure both teams would get the ball in overtime.
That meant the 49ers and Chiefs had the first chance in real time to implement a new strategy and put theory into practice, with an NFL championship on the line.
The outcome — the 49ers won the toss, took the ball and opted for a field goal, then lost on a touchdown to the Chiefs — was an exciting first chapter in how teams should handle this new overtime format in the playoffs. It was as much a lesson in what not to do as it was in what to do.
For starters, before 2022, NFL playoff games had the same basic format as the regular season, in that a team could win the coin toss, score a touchdown, and win the game without the other team’s offense ever leaving the field entered. When the Falcons (with now-49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator) lost to the Patriots in the only other overtime in Super Bowl history seven years ago, that’s what happened.
To make things fairer for both teams, the league changed the rule for playoff games, saying that both teams would be guaranteed one possession in overtime, and any lead after those two drives would mean the game was over. The entire 2022 postseason and the first 12 games of 2023 had come and gone without any extra innings, so the change was not fresh in anyone’s minds on Sunday night.
“That’s something we talked about,” Shanahan said after the game. “None of us have much experience with it.”
When the 49ers won the toss before overtime, they elected to receive the ball. In the old format this was the obvious choice, but with that scenario of touchdown wins gone, it became a much more difficult decision. If you choose to get the ball first, an offense can be the aggressor and a defense gets a few minutes of rest.
Choosing to go second is a lot like having the bottom of an inning in extra-inning baseball, or in the overtime format of college football. It means you know exactly what you need to win, or at least postpone losing for a while.
Going first makes decisions based on probability: should you go for it on fourth down, or kick for field position protection? More importantly, as the 49ers had to decide, if a drive sticks deep in the opponent’s territory, do you settle for a short field goal or do you risk going for it? San Francisco had a fourth-and-4 at the Chiefs’ 9-yard line on their overtime drive and opted to settle for a 27-yard Jake Moody field goal.
That left the window open for Kansas City to win the game by a touchdown.
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When the Chiefs took the field, they knew exactly what they needed to win – or stay alive in a draw. They went for it on a fourth-and-1 because they had to, and converted. On the next two third downs, the defense couldn’t just focus on getting a stop, knowing the Chiefs could go for it on fourth down.
What do the numbers say about getting the ball first or second in extra time? Start with the basic results for post-kickoff NFL drives – in 2023 there were 2,676 such drives. Teams scored touchdowns on just 20% of those, and field goals on 13%, so the overall chance of scoring at all was 1 in 3. On drives after kickoff, teams punted 40% of the time and lost the ball 13% of the time , that is, the opponent got the ball back in more than half the time without any score. In those scenarios, more often than not your opponent doesn’t have the ball in a sudden death scenario, any score and you win, which is better than what you have if you get the ball first.
You don’t want to make the mistake of taking league-wide numbers and blindly applying them to your team. San Francisco’s offense was much more likely to score on such a drive: touchdowns almost twice as often at 37%, field goals at 12%, thus scoring 49% of the time, instead of 33% in the league average . The turnover risk was significantly lower: 8% instead of 13%, so their chance of scoring was closer to 50-50.
Let’s also look at the 2023 numbers against the Chiefs’ defense: just 16% touchdowns and 12% field goals, so less than league average, with 54% of drives ending in a punt or turnover.
Shanahan said he chose to get the ball first because it meant that if the two teams had the same results on their first drives, the 49ers would have the advantage on the third drive and the sudden-death, score-you scenario -win. After the first two drives, this is the same overtime format as any other game in any other season, so a team must decide whether to play to get ready for that third drive, or avoid it completely and try to win the game. the first two.
Kansas City appears to have the latter goal in mind, as defensive tackle Chris Jones said the Chiefs had discussed the extension strategy extensively. Not only did they want the ball second, but if they scored a touchdown, they would go for two to try to win on a single play instead of punting to extend overtime.
If this overtime toss was a specific situation, the 49ers could have anticipated and researched it. They had a less predictable call at the end of their first drive, facing fourth and fourth at the Chiefs’ 9. They had rushed down second for no gain and had thrown incomplete on third, so the violation had not happened. ‘no yards gained in two plays. If they went for it, it could lead to a touchdown, putting a lot of pressure on the Chiefs. Even if the Niners didn’t convert, Kansas City would likely take over inside their 10-yard line, 50 yards or more from a reasonable game-winning field goal, giving San Francisco’s defense some margin for error.
But Shanahan chose to punt, giving his team the lead, but he also chose an outcome that gave Patrick Mahomes the ball with a chance to win with a touchdown. Just four years ago, Mahomes led the Chiefs to two touchdowns in the final seven minutes to erase a 10-point deficit and beat the 49ers for his first Super Bowl victory. Then again, if the Chiefs planned to go for two on a rebounding touchdown, the end would have been inevitable with Mahomes at quarterback. Kansas City attempted just one two-point conversion in 20 games this season, the fewest in the NFL, and failed to convert. his only attempt.
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Initial reports from Las Vegas indicate that the two teams had different levels of preparation for the playoff extension. Niners fullback Kyle Juszczyk was outspoken after the game in saying he was unaware of the rule change, and defensive lineman Arik Armstead said he learned the new rules when they were shown on the Allegiant Field video board after the end of regulation .
Although Chiefs players said this had already been discussed during training camp, after catching the game-winning touchdown, receiver Mecole Hardman didn’t know he had ended the game.
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Since this format only applies in the postseason, it will be rare enough that the NFL won’t get many opportunities to play out the scenarios and experiment to find best practices. Only 7% of NFL games went to overtime this season, and with only 13 playoff games per year, this will likely happen about once per season.
The next time it comes up, the stakes likely won’t be as high as they were Sunday night, with the 49ers having the honor of making a tough decision for the first time and then having to live with the consequences.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers And Saints. He is in his 10th season as a full-time reporter covering the Bucs and the NFL, after spending time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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