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Give Us Free Football

Since 2000, more than 300 NFL games have gone to overtime. Since the Super Bowl was first played 1967, not once has it made it past the fourth quarter. Will the 51st time be the charm?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Even though it features two of the NFL’s best teams, the Super Bowl itself often kinda stinks. Historically, it has been more likely to be decided by three scores (19 of the 50 Super Bowls have) than it is by one (just 18 of 50).

Now, you’d think the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, and their predecessors would be evenly matched. But although two conference champions are involved, the Super Bowl is significantly less likely to be a one-score game than an average NFL game: Since 2000, 49.7 percent of the 4,522 regular-season and postseason games have been decided by eight or fewer points, compared to just 36 percent of all Super Bowls.

In the surprisingly rare event that the Super Bowl is sorta close, Joe Buck or Al Michaels or Jim Nantz will take a moment to point out that the Super Bowl has, in fact, never gone to overtime. The first time I heard an announcer say this was in 1998, when the Packers were playing the Broncos and the game was tied late in the fourth quarter. It seemed odd: NFL games go into overtime constantly, so how come the most important one never has? Almost 20 years later, the factoid remains true.

The Super Bowl even had overtime before regular NFL games did. Up until 1974, the NFL ended games after 60 minutes, no matter what. But even in its pre-merger days, the league realized it couldn’t saw its championship trophy in half, so it instituted overtime for its championship games in 1946. (The NFL championship game was played for the first time in 1933 but never had a tie; I presume the league was forced into action on overtime by a 15–14 score in the 1945 championship game.) And before it became the Super Bowl in 1967, the NFL championship game did end in overtime once: the 1958 classic that old-school football fans call “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” That game, won by the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium, is widely credited with making football popular across the country. But now that the game actually is popular, its championship game has never needed an extra session.

Since 2000, 6.4 percent of regular-season and playoff games have gone to overtime. And over that time frame, the number has held up consistently from year to year: The season with the fewest overtimes was 2006, when there were only 12 in 267 games. … Even if we go by that season’s low standard, about two of the 50 Super Bowls should have had overtimes.

There’s no good explanation for this. Perhaps, I thought, it’s because the importance of the game changes the way late-game scenarios play out. But if that was true, postseason games wouldn’t go to overtime very often. In fact, the opposite is true: Of the 170 non–Super Bowl postseason games since 2000, 18 have gone to overtime, which is over 10 percent and nearly twice the rate of regular-season games. The lack of Super Bowl overtimes is a quirk, and every year we don’t have one, it gets quirkier.

That’s a shame, because a Super Bowl overtime would blow our freakin’ minds. It would set ratings records; since TV ratings are graded based on the game’s entire audience, games that become blowouts quickly have lower audiences. It would send shockwaves through the ad industry; the additional commercial breaks during the overtime period would be insanely valuable. It would set up some of the most pivotal coaching decisions in NFL history; should teams go for game-ending touchdowns on the first drive of overtime, or settle for go-ahead field goals that give the ball back to the other team?

Plus, it would set up the opportunity for a walk-off game winner in the Super Bowl. Thus far, it’s happened only once, when the Patriots’ Adam Vinatieri hit a field goal as the clock expired to beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Every other Super Bowl has had at least one play after a game-winning score.

The best part of it, though, would be that the teams would have to play until somebody won. Regular-season games can end in ties, but the same logic that forced the league to institute overtime back in 1946 applies here: We can’t have two teams holding parades, each hoisting half of the Lombardi Trophy into the air. So if the game is tied after one period of overtime, they’ll have to play double overtime, and if the game is tied after double overtime, they’ll have to play triple overtime. But as Buck and Michaels and Nantz will happily tell us, we’ve never had a Super Bowl game with an overtime. I probably shouldn’t hold my breath for double overtime.

An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that the New York Giants beat the Baltimore Colts in the 1958 NFL championship; the Colts beat the Giants.