Overtime and Sudden Death in American Football

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

If a football game is tied at the end of regulation play, the game goes into overtime. To decide who gets the ball in overtime, team captains meet at the center of the field for a coin toss. The team that wins the toss gets the ball and the first crack at scoring.

  • In the NFL, this method of handling tie games is sometimes called sudden death because, in regular season play, the game is over immediately after the first team scores. The sudden-death method of deciding a tie game has been criticized as unfair to the team that loses the coin toss. After all, if your team loses the toss, it may not get a chance to get the ball or score.

    Critics of the overtime system claim that both teams should get the ball and a chance to score in overtime. To calm the critics, the NFL instituted a new overtime policy in 2010. Now if the team that wins the coin toss scores only a field goal during its first possession, the opposing teams gets a crack at scoring too, and if this team scores a touchdown, it wins the game. If the game is still tied after both teams have had a chance to score, the game goes into sudden death, and the first team to score wins.

  • Under college rules, each team gets the ball for alternate possessions starting at the 25-yard line. If the team that wins the coin toss scores, its opponent still gets a chance to score and tie the game again. If a college football game goes past two overtimes, teams must try for two-point conversions after touchdowns (instead of kicking for an extra point — a PAT) until one prevails.