NFL Overtime Rules (Regular Season & Playoffs Explained)

By Coach Martin | Football Rules & Penalties


In a regular game of football, when the game clock ticks to zero at the end of the 4th quarter the team with the most points is the winner.

But what happens if the score is tied when time runs out?

In all such cases, NFL games will go into an overtime period.

The rules for an overtime are slightly different than in regulation time. And the rules also vary slightly depending on if it's a regular season game or a playoff game.

So, if you want a full breakdown of the NFL overtime rules, keep reading below and we'll provide a detailed explanation.

NFL Overtime Rules - Regular Season

Overtime in the regular season will be one period that lasts 10 minutes. 

It begins with a coin toss. The team that wins the coin toss can choose either to receive the kickoff or kickoff to the other team.

There is no option to defer the coin toss, since there is just one additional quarter of overtime and not two halves.

In recent years, the NFL changed their overtime rules to state that both teams have to possess the ball at least once in the overtime period. This gives each team an equal chance to score.

Before that change, the team that scored first won the game -- no matter if they scored a touchdown or kicked a field goal.

This gave a distinctive advantage to the team that won the coin toss, which is largely luck.

How Regular Season Overtime Works:

Each team will have the chance to possess the football in overtime. 

There is one exception to this rule.

If the team receiving the kickoff in overtime scores a touchdown on the opening possession, they win the game.

If the team that receives the kickoff either punts, turns the ball over, or scores a field goal, then the other team will have an opportunity.

If the first team either punts or turns the ball over, the game turns into sudden death. Meaning, whichever team scores first from that point on will win.

If the first team kicks a field goal, then the second team can win the game by scoring a touchdown on that next possession.

If the 2nd team doesn't score at all on that next possession, the game is over and the first team wins.

If the second team kicks a field goal and ties the game again, then the rest of overtime turns into sudden death again.

Other Regular Season OT Rules

Each team will get two timeouts during the overtime period.

There are also no instant replay coach's challenges. Any reviews of calls on the field will be initiated by the replay official in the game.


NFL Overtime Rules - Playoffs

Overtime rules are slightly different when it comes to the playoffs.

There are two main differences:

1. NFL Playoff Games Can't End in a Tie

So if it's still a tied game at the end of the overtime period, teams will have to play a second overtime period.

This continues until one team wins the game.

2. Both Teams Will Have a Chance to Possess the Football

This is true regardless of whether the team that receives the kickoff scores a touchdown on their first possession or not. 

To this end, the team that wins the coin toss will have the choice of whether to receive, kickoff, or defer the choice to the other team.

Other Playoff OT Rules

During overtime periods in playoff games, each team will get three timeouts during a half.

Essentially, overtime in the playoffs will trigger a new four-quarter game, with each quarter acting as a separate OT period but also acting like they do in the regular game.

This means that you can consider the first two overtime periods as the first half, and the second two will be considered the second half.

There will also be a two-minute warning toward the end of the second and fourth overtime periods -- if they the game extends that long.

Finally, if the score is still tied at the end of four overtime periods, teams will go through another coin toss. Then the game will keep going until a winner is finally declared.


Why Are Regular Season and Playoff Rules Different?

The main reason for this is that regular season games can end in a tie, while playoff games cannot.

During the playoffs, one team MUST be declared the winner so they can move onto the next round.

As such, regular season games will simply end in a tie -- with both teams receiving a tie on the season standings. While playoff games that result in a tied game after overtime will keep going.


The NFL updated their overtime rules in recent years to give both teams involved a fair chance to possess the ball during the extra period.

The rules are slightly different for overtime in the regular season and the playoffs, simply because playoff games can't end in a tie but regular season games can.

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