Wait…What Just Happened : Ties

football, advanced, ties, banana bread

Yesterday, something happened in the NFL that hasn’t happened in four years.

The Titans blew out an opponent.

Just kidding. Cheap Titans shot on a Monday morning. I’m writing this pre-coffee so I’m feeling a little snappy. (FYI – The Titans did blow out the Dolphins yesterday, 37-3. Perhaps their seats felt mighty hot after last week.)

But the thing that actually happened was a tie. The Niners and Rams ended the allotted 15 minutes of overtime with a score of 24-24. Which, honestly, feels less like shared victory and more like “Why does this even exist as a possibility?” It seemed like that was also the sentiment of most of the players in their post-game interviews.

Let’s put aside the fact that this was just a weird game from the get-go full of clock errors and mind-boggling penalties and missed opportunities on both sides to win the game handily. Let’s just focus on how exactly a tie happens and what it means in the long term.


When the score is tied, the game goes into overtime. Captains go out to the middle of the field, a coin is flipped, and whoever wins the toss chooses to either receive (offense) or defend (defense). I’m not sure why a team would choose to defend under these conditions, but that’s neither here nor here.

Thanks to the new overtime rules, both teams get a chance to possess the ball UNLESS the team on offense scores a touchdown on their first possession, in which case they win the game. Let’s use the Rams and the 49ers as an example.

If the Rams win the toss and elect to receive and score a touchdown on their first possession, they win.

If the Rams score a field goal, the Niners have an opportunity to either win the game with a touchdown or tie with a field goal. If the 49ers do not score, the Rams win the game.

If the Ram do not score on their opening drive and the 49ers score either a field goal or a touchdown, they win the game.

If the Rams do not score on their first possession and the Niners do not score on their first possession then the ball goes back to the Rams and overtime continues until 15 minutes have elapsed.

If the score is still tied after 15 minutes, the result is a tie, which is what happened yesterday.

Make sense?

Ok, so here’s what that means:


Tie games count as one-half win and one-half loss for both clubs (as per the NFL rule book). To get to the playoffs, the first place team from each division are automatically seeded (8 teams). The remaining 4 teams are wildcard teams, the two teams from each conference with the best record after the top seeds.

But what if there’s a tie?

This is where things get complicated. See: this.

For today, since I’m not confident that I have a firm grasp on how tiebreakers are decided in every situation, let’s just focus on yesterday’s game and what it could mean for the Niners and the Rams.

This situation is dicey because the teams both play in the NFC West. This means that they’re competing for the best record to get the NFC West playoff spot. Right now, the Niners are 6-2-1 (6 wins, 2 losses, 1 tie). The Rams are 3-5-1. It seems unlikely that their record would be the same at the end of the season unless the Niners collapse and the Rams excel, but it’s possible. If at the end of the season the Niners and the Rams led the division with a tied 10-5-1 record, here’s what would happen (again courtesy of the NFL rule book):

  1. Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs).
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
  4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  5. Strength of victory.
  6. Strength of schedule.
  7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
  8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
  9. Best net points in common games.
  10. Best net points in all games.
  11. Best net touchdowns in all games.
  12. Coin toss

Isn’t it crazy that in the NFL…a multi-billion dollar industry…the end result could potentially come down to a coin toss?! Crazy. CRAZY.

Now, let’s rewind a minute and say that the Rams and Niners were tied atop the division with an 11-5 record. The same rules apply, it’s just less complicated because they’d have a clear head-to-head victory to factor into the equation, a luxury that ties do not afford.

Basically, ties are the wet blanket of the NFL. It seems odd that in every other level of football – Pop Warner, high school, college – you play until someone wins the game. Shouldn’t it be the same in the highest level of the game? In my opinion: oh my land, yes. Beyond avoiding confusion and the empty meaning of ending in a tie, overtime games are the height of intensity in the regular season. Knowing that all of the effort and anticipation and enthusiasm could ultimately lead to a no-winner…it feels like squelching the fire.

Potential future rule change? Let’s hope so.