Scenarios for sudden death in playoffs
Admit it, you were saved by Tim Tebow.
After 36 years of sudden-death overtime in the NFL, the league decided last season that it was tired of letting coin flips and kickers decide the outcome of its best and most important games, so the NFL owners voted 28-4 in favor of the complicated, verbose and, at times, downright bizarre NFL Rule 16 (Sudden-Death Procedures) for use in the playoffs.
How bizarre? Well, the rule actually includes a dozen references to the term "muffed" and, in places, hinges on the phrases "palpably unfair act" and "opportunity to possess." Heck, just to explain the basics of Rule 16, Section 1, Articles 3-4 (a) through (j) and Approved Rulings 16.1 to 16.22, the NFL recently sent out a release that was four pages long.
Together, in this very space last season, we went over every last possible scenario of the new OT rules. But then, of course, no games ended up tied after 60 minutes. A year went by, and we all got busy with the holidays and whatnot and, instead of studying up before the wild-card games, we just went ahead and winged it. What the heck. It'll never happen.
Then the Broncos and the Steelers ended up knotted at 23 and, while we were trying to act cool and calm and secretly Google NFL OT Rules on our phones, Tebow bailed all of us slackers and procrastinators out on the very first play by invoking the one part of the rule we actually remembered: Overtime. Playoffs. Touchdown. Good.
Here are a few other basic tenets of the new OT rule: A team can no longer win in overtime on a first-possession field goal; now, the game is extended if that happens. If both teams kick field goals on their first possessions, the next team to score wins; if one team kicks a field goal on its first possession and the other team doesn't, the game's over.
Ah, but what about safeties? Or interceptions? Or fumbles? Or onside kicks? Or a blocked punt? Or: What about a fumbled interception that leads to a safety after a blocked punt? And, seriously, what the hell is a palpably unfair act? Because that honestly sounds as though critical calls in OT this week might come down to how the play emotionally registers with Ed Hochuli. Upon further reflection regarding the effect his parents' divorce had on him as a child, the line judge has ruled that the Saints' having 12 men in the huddle was a palpably unfair act and therefore they must forfeit the game.
Weird, right? Don't panic.
The good news is that, thanks to Tebow, we've all been given a chance to redeem ourselves by properly studying up on Rule 16 before the divisional round of the playoffs begins.
Even better, I've found a way to make studying these complicated rules super interesting, easy to follow and easy to remember by using helpful scenarios that involve the only player in the universe anyone seems to care about right now and what, more and more, looks like the only possible outcome of any NFL game.
Ladies and gentlemen, FlemFilers, I give you every possible scenario for sudden death in the NFL playoffs, or, as I now like to call it: Tebowvertime.
NFL Playoff Overtime Rules Scenario 1: The Patriots kick a field goal on their first possession of OT. The Broncos get the ball back on the 20; the Patriots load the box with nine defenders trying to stop the run; and Tebow hits Demaryius Thomas on a simple 8-yard post route that, even under the worst circumstance, should result in only a 20-yard gain. But, for some reason, the Patriots' DBs use the same tickle tackling technique we saw from Cincinnati, Detroit and Pittsburgh in the wild-card round and Thomas goes 80 yards, again, for a TD. Tebow wins.
Scenario 2: Brady's first pass in overtime is tipped at the line and picked off by Andre Goodman and returned for a TD. Tebow wins.
Scenario 3: First possession of OT, only this time Tebow gets picked by Kyle Arrington who, while running around with the ball, fumbles it and the Broncos recover. New England has now had its "opportunity to possess." Denver drives to the Patriots' 35, where Tebow drop-kicks a 53-yard field goal. Tebow wins.
Scenario 4: This time in the Super Bowl, the 49ers open overtime with a field goal only to watch as Tebow drives the Broncos 72 yards downfield on eight plays before flattening NaVorro Bowman at the goal line. Afterward, Jim Harbaugh will go ballistic, saying that there was nothing wrong with the old OT rule, that it never should have been changed and that, if the game had been played two years ago, the 49ers would be spooning with the Lombardi trophy as we speak. Harbaugh will be wrong, of course. The new rule is confusing, I'll grant you that, but dual possession is far more fair and true to the game than letting a coin flip or a 110-pound kicker wearing a Halloween costume uniform decide the world champion. Tebow wins.
Scenario 5: In the AFC Championship Game, Broncos lose the OT coin toss and kick to Houston. The Texans' Danieal Manning fumbles the ball, and Tebow, acting as Denver's wedge-buster, falls on it. Denver kicks a field goal. Tebow wins.
Scenario 6: OT in the Super Bowl. Broncos open the OT by surprising the Saints and recovering an onside kick. Five plays later, Denver kicks a field goal. Tebow wins.
Scenario 7: In the Super Bowl, after a long, time-consuming drive, the Saints kick a field goal on the first possession of OT. The Broncos get the ball back with just 2:47 left to play in the first extra period. Denver moves the ball to the 2-yard line but hasn't scored when time expires. Several giddy Saints fans -- wearing nothing but beer bellies and Mardi Gras beads -- run on the field celebrating, thinking the game is over. The timekeeper resets the clock to 15:00; the fans get tased multiple times; and, on the next snap, the Broncos run the ball into the end zone. Tebow wins.
Scenario 8: Playing in Baltimore with a shot at the Super Bowl, the Broncos get the ball first in OT and go three-and-out. The Ravens get the ball back and go three-and-out. Denver gets a pass interference flag, one first down and 8 yards rushing and kicks a 61-yard field goal. Yawn. Tebow wins.
Scenario 9: On the first possession of OT in the Super Bowl, 49ers QB Alex Smith drops back at the 11 and gets chased out of the pocket by Wesley Woodyard; he turns to escape and gets blasted, backward, into the end zone by D.J. Williams. Safety. At long last, will the world finally give some love and respect to the Broncos' defense? Nope. Tebow wins.
Scenario 10: Broncos get the ball first in OT against the Texans and drive to the 33 before kicking a 50-yard field goal. Texans return the ball to the 37. In keeping with their season-long injury problems, Arian Foster pulls a hammy on first down. On second down, Andre Johnson turns his ankle. On third down, Owen Daniels suffers a grotesque turf toe sprain. And, on fourth-and-10, T.J. Yates pulls a rib muscle while passing the ball, which falls incomplete, bounces once and comes to rest near midfield, thus ending, in a rather anticlimactic way, the Texans' opportunity to possess the ball, the game and Houston's season. Tebow wins.
Scenario 11: The Broncos have the ball first in the second period of overtime in Baltimore. The Ravens and Broncos have scored field goals. On fourth down with the ball at the 9, Tebow takes off running and gets blown up by Ray Lewis near the goal line, but, according to most vantage points, appears to have touched the orange pylon with the ball before landing out of bounds. The Ravens, however, believe the end zone camera will show that the ball never actually made contact with the pylon and it should be their ball for first-and-10 at the 1-foot line. Coach John Harbaugh throws his challenge flag. There's only one problem: Coaches aren't allowed any challenges in overtime. The replay assistant does not initiate a review. Tebow wins.
Scenario 12: In the first possession of overtime inside Lucas Oil Stadium for Super Bowl XLVI, the entire Green Bay defense bites on a naked bootleg and Tebow floats by himself down the sideline. There is nothing but grass between the Denver quarterback and Super Bowl immortality. Just then, a large, bucktoothed man wearing a blue Broncos blazer and an orange tie with what looks to be two Super Bowl rings on his fingers appears to wander next to the field and trip Tebow. The refs huddle. The stadium is going crazy. Then the ruling comes in: The Broncos were the victims of a "palpably unfair act" and will be awarded the winning touchdown. Now, to go along with The Fumble and The Drive, there is The Loafer. Tebow wins.
Scenario 13: Tebow wins the coin toss at the beginning of overtime in Gillette Stadium but defers to the Patriots, who mock and taunt him for his odd decision while driving for a field goal. Denver answers with its own field goal, but the two teams then go two full OT periods without scoring. To start the third, the rules state that, just like in regulation, the team that kicked first will receive the ball. Tebow subs in for Quan Cosby and runs the kick back 109 yards for a touchdown. Tebow wins.
Scenario 14: In overtime in Indy, the Broncos get a quick field goal only to watch the Saints drive to the 1-yard line. After getting stopped on third down, Sean Payton goes conservative for, maybe, the first time in his career. New Orleans lines up for the gimme field goal -- if it's good, the next team to score any points will win. With a bull rush for the ages, though, Jamal Williams blocks the kick. Tebow wins.
Scenario 15: After the Pats fail to put any points on the board on the first possession of OT, Zoltan Mesko bobbles the snap on fourth-and-2 and has his punt blocked by the Broncos. The ball goes straight up in the air, and Brian Dawkins manages to get his hands on the loose ball but never fully possesses it. Pats center Dan Connolly picks it up and belly flops forward for the first down. The Pats then drive down the field and kick a field goal that they believe has won the game. The ref, however, informs them that, because the kick did not go past the line of scrimmage and because Dawkins never fully possessed the ball, the Patriots have to kick off to the Broncos, who drive down the field and score in six plays. Afterward, Belichick looks as though he's crying but says it was the wind in his face and, when pushed, produces medical records that show he had his tear ducts surgically removed while coaching in Cleveland. Tebow wins.
Scenario 16: After advancing on a controversial muffed punt nonpossession call in the divisional playoffs against the Patriots, the Broncos advance to face the Ravens in Baltimore with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The teams somehow end up tied after regulation and, after their opening OT drive stalls, the Broncos are forced to punt. The Ravens partially block the kick, and the ball sails 15 yards downfield, where it hits Ricky Williams in the back. The Broncos recover and kick a field goal. With the Pats game still fresh in their minds, the Ravens send their kick return team onto the field. But the game's over. The refs are gone. Blocked kicks that travel past the line of scrimmage and are muffed by the return team count as an opportunity to possess. Tebow wins.
Scenario 17: As OT starts in the Super Bowl, all of the Packers' quarterbacks have been knocked out of the game, leaving the job to B.J. Raji. With both teams unable to move the ball at all, the score remains 0-0 after the first extra 15 minutes. Then the second. And the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth and seventh. Green Bay gets the ball to the 40, but a missed 58-yard field goal sends the game into an eighth OT. The two teams are about to have played the equivalent of three full football games. Just like with extra innings in baseball, there is, technically, a chance with the new NFL OT rules that a playoff game could go on for, well, ahem, all eternity.
Twice the Packers' defense lines up with just nine players. The game started at 6:30. It's now almost 4 in the morning. The Broncos actually try to sign Madonna to play some nickel corner. By the 10th overtime, the NFL announces that it has sold enough ads in this one Super Bowl to play the 2013 Pro Bowl on Mars. After 10 hours of football, just as the commissioner is about to shut the game down and declare a Super Bowl tie, something miraculous appears to be happening with Tebow: The game has gone on so long that his throwing fundamentals have actually begun to improve. His drop is balanced. His eyes are downfield. The ball goes from just above his numbers straight back. He follows through with the back of his hand to his opposite pocket. It's a miracle.
The rising sun twinkles through the glass of Lucas Oil Stadium, bathing Tebow in a golden light as he completes a touch pass to a tight end, a timing route to a back and a deep back shoulder comeback to a receiver.
With most of the fans asleep and the Packers too stunned to move, Tebow throws the ball up almost to the ceiling, runs into the end zone and completes the game-winning TD pass to himself.
Game over.Tebow wins.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."