Sunday, February 25, 2024

49ers’ Decision to Take the Ball First in Super Bowl Overtime Will Be Debated for a While

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — It used to be one of the easiest decisions in football: If you win the toss in overtime, you take the ball.

The rules are different now, however, and that choice by San Francisco in the Super Bowl will be debated all offseason.

The 49ers took the ball and drove for a field goal, then lost 25-22 when Patrick Mahomes guided Kansas City 75 yards the other way for the winning touchdown Sunday night. San Francisco’s drive ended when the 49ers kicked a field goal on fourth-and-4 from the 9. If they’d known three points wouldn’t be good enough, they could have gone for a touchdown in that spot.

For many years, overtime ended as soon as one team scored. Then the rule was altered so both teams could possess the ball — unless the first team on offense scored a touchdown. Then the game would end on that TD, and that’s what happened when New England beat Atlanta 34-28 in Super Bowl 51.

Then an even more recent rule change mandated that in the postseason, both teams can possess the ball even if the first offensive team scores a touchdown. Now NFL playoff overtime even more closely resembles the college overtime, where teams alternate possessions. And in college, teams often like to have the ball second because they’ll have a better sense of what they need on their drive.

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This time, Kansas City had that advantage, which meant the Chiefs had no choice but to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 34. They converted and eventually reached the end zone on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Mecole Hardman.

One defense of San Francisco’s decision to take the ball involves what happens if the game is still tied after both teams have had a possession. Then the game DOES become sudden death — so there’s a clear potential edge in having the ball third. If the game was still tied after the first two possessions, the 49ers would have gotten the ball and any score would have won it. But overtime never made it that far.

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