One of the biggest events in sports, the Super Bowl crowns the best team in America. It’s a huge spectacle that has never failed to find a champion in 51 editions, but couldn’t it technically finish as a draw?
In the regular season, games used to run for four quarters and the score was left to stand. The scoring system in football makes draws rather unlikely, but still possible. In fact, 66% of regular season games in 2017 ended with a scoreline within tying distance (within 7 points).
In 2010 the NFL changed the rules for overtime in playoff games, recognizing the need to have a tiebreaker system. It’s a feature that has already been incorporated in other sports like soccer. Regular games in the season might end in draws, but important playoff games (e.g. Champions League final) go into overtime and, eventually, a penalty shootout. In the NBA, every game is played to find a winner, regardless of how many overtimes there needs to be. By 2012, the NFL expanded overtime rules to cover all games, including the regular season and preseason, although the two sets of rules are different. There is one OT period in regular season, and if the score is still tied the game ends in a draw. Not so in the playoffs.
Now, there’s no quick way to resolve a tie like you can with penalties in soccer. Instead, at the end of regulation the ref flips a coin to determine which team gets possession. Play continues in 15-minute overtime periods, or 10-minute overtime periods in preseason and regular season. There is a 2-minute break between overtimes, with no halftime break allowed. Both teams have 3 timeouts per half, which reset at every half (e.g. every 2 overtime periods). So play continues for 15 minutes, there is a 2 minute break, and another 15-minute overtime period resumes if the game is still tied. After 4 overtimes, the NFL simply says that play must continue until the tie is broken, so the process repeats indefinitely.
Unless the team that first has possession scores a touchdown on their opening drive (which happened in Super Bowl LI) both teams must have a chance to possess the ball. Super Bowl LI was actually the first Super Bowl to ever go into overtime, as the Patriots incredibly chased the Falcons back from the brink. They would go on to score on their first possession, ending the game.
It’s not just a touchdown that counts. The NFL says any score, given that both teams have possessed the ball, immediately ends the game. This sudden death scoring method means a field goal or even a safety could decide the biggest game of the year. One strange rule reads that “a score may be awarded for a palpably unfair act,” although this rule has never been invoked. It does, however, leave the possibility for a ref to one day decide the Super Bowl. All this to say: you can win a million different ways, but you can’t tie.