Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith is glad his top-seeded NFC team got a first-round playoff bye -- and not for the usual reasons of players getting healthy, getting more time to game plan, etc.
The added few days allow Smith, and every other team with a bye, to prepare for new overtime rules that were implemented this offseason, but not put into effect until the playoffs. The eight teams involved in this weekend's wild-card games have to cram in order to be ready for the possibility they get to overtime.
"This can influence decision-making, especially how you play the last couple minutes of a ball game, in terms of playing for the tie or win in regulation," Smith said. "There are a lot of situations that you have to coach differently in overtime."
Beginning Saturday, sudden-death as we know it is history -- until next regular season.
Unlike regular-season overtime rules that have been in place for years, both teams could have the chance to score in overtime, even if the first team with the ball kicks a field goal. Normally, the team to score first, regardless of how, wins.
If a field goal is made on the first possession of overtime, the other team gains possession. If that team scores a touchdown, game over. If it kicks a field goal to tie, then the next team to score wins. The only way the game ends on the first possession is if that team scores a touchdown or if the defense forces a safety or returns a turnover for a score.
The changes didn't sit well with coaches, especially since the first time they could encounter them could be with a Super Bowl berth on the line. Teams now have to add another layer of preparation to their practices, in the film room and on the field because of the variety of uncharted scenarios that could be presented.
The possibilities have had coaches trying to sort out every circumstance possible -- and there are plenty. For example ...
The kicking game
» If the team has to punt on its first possession, does the return team double team the gunners? By having additional bodies blocking near where the ball could land, it could increase the risk of the ball touching a player on the return team. If that were to happen, the punting team would regain possession in good field position and possibly win with a field goal since the turnover is considered a possession.
Look for teams to stack the box with eight or nine defenders to force max protection and reduce traffic coming off the edges near the return man, a league source said.
» Players could be coached that if they intercept the ball in the end zone on the first possession to take the touchback. Should they return it and fumble in the process, it could give the opposing team possession in field goal range. The fumble of an interception would mean that each team has had a possession and now a field goal wins the game.
» Teams who get the ball first could be more aggressive trying to score touchdowns (one of the reasons the rule change was applied), so the other team won't get the ball back.
» If you trail by a field goal and are getting the ball with a chance to tie or win, every possession is a four-down possession, so play-calling on both sides of the ball could be different.