February 24, 2024

When winning the overtime coin toss in playoffs, the choices are receive, kick, or defer


The 49ers took the ball to start overtime. The Chiefs would have opted to kick.

Actually, the best decision arguably would have been to defer. (More on that later.)

Regardless, the twist to the playoff rules adopted in 2022 creates an important analysis regarding the choice to make when winning the overtime coin toss.

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan explained after the 25-22 loss that he took the ball because he wanted the third possession, if both teams had scored exactly three or seven (or, in theory, six or eight) and if the game had then pivoted to sudden death. But it’s far more complicated than that.

With the Chiefs being guaranteed the opportunity to match any score by the 49ers, San Francisco opened with a three-down mentality, while the Chiefs had a four-down mindset after the 49ers scored, at least until the Chiefs were in field-goal range.

Kansas City started the drive knowing what it needed in order to tie or to win. While that changed after the Chiefs got into field-goal range, the decision to go for it on fourth and short was a no-brainer, because they were down by three. If they’d faced that situation on the opening drive of overtime, would they have gone from it at their own 34?

Also, if the 49ers had scored a touchdown and if the Chiefs had matched it, what if the Chiefs had decided to go for two and the win? There wouldn’t have been a third possession.

There isn’t nearly enough data to assist with the decision-making process. Tonight’s game provided one clear point for the win-loss column based on choosing to take the ball or to kick.

Or, more specifically, to defer. If the team that wins the overtime toss chooses to kick and if the game remains tied after two full 15-minute overtime periods (it’s only 10 minutes in the regular season), there’s another kickoff to start what would be the third overtime period.

If the team that wins the coin toss chooses to kick at the outset of overtime, the other team can choose to receive to start the third overtime period. The better move would be to defer the option, securing the ability to kick the ball before overtime transforms to sudden death and likewise getting the ball if/when there’s a third overtime period.

This is all new to everyone. Many likely thought that the 49ers would have won, for example, if the clock in the opening overtime period had gone to zero. It would have continued, however, into the second overtime period.

And the next time a postseason game goes to overtime, everyone will be far more aware of the potential consequences of the decision made by the team that wins the coin toss.





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