The NFL was dying to see how its new overtime rule would work, and it found out in a hurry.
It was short . . . and sweet, for the Denver Broncos.
The new overtime rule took one play to decide the winner. Denver quarterback Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on an 80-yard pass play to give the Broncos a 29-23 home victory over Pittsburgh in the AFC wild-card game Sunday.
The NFL didn't pass the new rule for the regular season because the league was concerned it would add too many plays per overtime period. The players objected to the new rule for player safety reasons because they felt it would add more plays to each overtime period. They liked the rule the way it was, and so did the coaches.
So commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners compromised and proposed the new rule for the playoffs only. The rule states that each team would be guaranteed a possession in overtime, unless the team that first possessed the ball scored a touchdown.
This rule kept alive the notion of sudden death, but it eliminated the notion of winning by a cheap field goal.
The rule that was passed in 2010 finally was put into use more than a year later. The results were unexpected.
Not only are the Broncos happy, but the officials are relieved as well.
With Denver leading 20-6 in the third quarter, the Steelers caught a huge break that got them back in the game.
Here was the situation:
Pittsburgh had the ball, first-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 23-yard line with 8:07 left in the third quarter. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attempted a short pass to Mike Wallace, who was hit by Denver's Champ Bailey.
It was ruled an incomplete pass on the field, but Broncos coach John Fox initially challenged the play because the ball appeared to be a backward pass that was recovered by Denver.
Indeed, it appeared the pass was backward, but by rule, because the pass was ruled forward and incomplete, the ball is dead when it hits the ground and the defense is not given a recovery.
The rule is not the same as the rule pertaining to fumbles vs. down by contact or the rule for quarterback pass-fumble plays, where you can review the play through the ruling and give the ball to the recovering team.
The NFL should take a look at this and see if it makes sense to include the forward vs. backward pass ruling, the same way the league includes the fumble vs. down-by-contact ruling. In the NCAA, you can review this and give the ball to the defense — with, of course, no advance.
The officials were right to talk Fox out of challenging this, but they were wrong in ruling the pass forward and incomplete.
Pittsburgh eventually scored a touchdown on the drive, which cut Denver's lead to 20-13.
The Broncos scored on their first possession of the fourth quarter to take a 23-13 lead, but the Steelers rallied with 10 points of their own down the stretch to force overtime — which ended up being the shortest overtime in history.
So the Broncos are happy. The NFL is happy. And, maybe even the officials are a little happy that a call didn't affect the outcome of a game.
Only the Steelers were left unhappy.
Three out of four ain't bad.
Here's another interesting call from this game:
THE SITUATION: Denver had the ball, second-and-12 at the Denver 18-yard line with 14:44 left in the second quarter. Pittsburgh led 6-0.
THE PLAY: Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow completed a 21-yard pass to Eric Decker to the Denver 39. Decker appeared to make the catch, but he was tackled at the knees by Pittsburgh's James Harrison. As Decker hit the ground, the ball came loose. Pittsburgh challenged the ruling that the runner was down by contact. The Steelers felt it may have been a fumble and they had recovered it.
MY TAKE: When referee Ron Winter and his replay official reviewed the play, they saw that the pass was incomplete because Decker failed to maintain control after hitting the ground in the process of completing the catch.
The contact by Harrison was nearly simultaneous with Decker's second foot hitting the ground. Therefore, Decker was considered to be going to the ground, because he had not completed the catch before Harrison's contact. By rule, he must maintain possession of the ball after hitting the ground, which he did not.
Even though Pittsburgh challenged the down-by-contact ruling, the entire play is reviewable. The Steelers won the challenge because an aspect of the play got changed. It makes no difference that what was changed was not what the Steelers actually challenged.