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A Brief History of Recent NFL Tie Games

This week in the NFC, I noticed that a game ended in a tie between two NFC teams. How about that! Well, 7 of the last 8 teams involved in ties have been NFC teams. That means…well, nothing. But you know, ties are still fun, and it’s always weird how averse America is to them. So how about a quick history of recent NFL tie games?

One of the tropes I enjoyed about round football was the high-scoring draw. Two swashbuckling teams, paying only cursory attention to defense, throwing wave after wave of attack at each other and coming up with a 3-3 or 4-4 scoreline. Both sets of fans go home happy, managers and players are all “Whew, what a game!” and it’s just generally positive. Meanwhile, over in American sports, tie games are right up there with the metric system as foreshadowing imminent communism and the death of freedom, and it’s time to get your militia together and go occupy some small outpost of government in rural Oregon.

I remember watching the Pee-Wee hockey episode of the Simpsons when the BBC (or Channel 4?) first aired it in the 90s, and being utterly baffled. Why, other than because Springfield is loveably stupid, are these folks all rioting because a sports game ended in a draw? Reading the various screeds following last weekend’s Cardinals-Seahawks game, that trope still applies. You can have a lot of fun trying to work out why, too! But we’re not here to psychoanalyse America’s psyche. We’re here to talk tie games!

November 11, 2012: San Francisco 24, St. Louis 24

I remember this tied game quite vividly, mainly because the return fixture nearly ended in a tie too. San Francisco were a very good team this year (hence the Super Bowl appearance), whereas St Louis were coached by Jeff Fisher. This had been the first tie for four years, too, so we saw plenty of people muttering darkly about kissing your sister. It was also the game in which Alex Smith got concussed and replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who played lights out the rest of the season and led San Francisco to aforementioned Super Bowl appearance.

The game itself was fairly good. St Louis showed a balanced offense, with a 100-yard rusher (Steven Jackson) and receiver (Danny Amendola). The defense got 5 sacks and forced 2 fumbles, and they were the better team, leading 17-7 going into the fourth quarter. San Francisco generally stayed in it by just doing enough – some clutch plays from Kaepernick, including a 4th quarter rushing touchdown, and top linebacker play as San Francisco always had in those days kept the game ticking along. The interesting thing is (as will become a theme) both kickers missed in a scoreless overtime. Greg Zuerlein missed from 58 yards, which is fairly understandable. But the 49ers failed to get the win earlier, as David Akers missed from 41 yards.

November 24, 2013: Green Bay 26, Minnesota 26

Three of the last four ties have been divisional bouts in the NFC, two in the West and this one, in the North. These weren’t your 2016 Vikings though. These were the Vikings of Christian Ponder, carried on the back of Adrian Peterson and not a whole lot else. The Green Bay team actually looks that familiar, with only the odd name (AJ Hawk, Jarret Boykin, James Jones), no longer there, yet still somehow familiar, and ineffably Green Bay.

Except at one position, anyway. Aaron Rodgers missed this game through injury, leaving the Packers to entrust starting duties to Scott Tolzien (rubbish) and Matt Flynn (who played fine). In the way that these teams’ matchups used to go, Minnesota had a 20-7 lead going into the fourth quarter, before Green Bay woke up, and put up 16 points to Minnesota’s 3. Both teams then led long, slow, careful drives in overtime that ended in field goals, ate up the clock, and neither could get that final decisive point. So that was that.

October 12, 2014: Cincinnati 37, Carolina 37

This game ended in a tie because of – yep, you guess it – a missed field goal. Overtime is set up by the NFL in such a way now that it’s pretty difficult for a game to end in a tie without some sort of ineptitude, generally from a kicker. Any touchdown ends the game. If a team, on their first possession, gets a field goal, their opponent has one drive to try and either equal that (overtime is prolonged), or get a winning touchdown.

This is the highest-scoring tied game in NFL history. It was a weird game in which the only consistent running threat was Cam Newton. Gio Bernard got 137 yards on 18 carries, but 89 of those came on one broken run-coverage touchdown play. Take that out and it’s 58 yards on 17 carries. Andy Dalton put up 300 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions despite lacking his top two receivers (AJ Green and Marvin Jones), Cam had a pre-MVP-Cam-era good game, getting decent games out of several receivers, throwing 2 touchdowns and running for one, while throwing one interception.

So yeah, it was one of those games that probably deserved ending in a tie – teams matched each other step for step – no-one ever really broke more than a touchdown out in front. Both teams managed a field goal in overtime with clock-chewing drives – by the time Cincinnati got the ball back after Carolina’s field goal, there were less than 3 minutes left. So when Mike Nugent trundled onto the field to miss a 36-yarder, a tie seemed the right result.

October 23, 2016: Arizona 6, Seattle 6

Depending on who you listen to, this was one of: brilliant, terrible, brilliantly terrible or terribly brilliant. Chandler Catanzaro and Stephen Hauschka – two of the league’s better kickers – shared three missed field goals between them, all in overtime. It feels a bit much to pin this low scoring game on kickers when there were no offensive touchdowns – despite a huge game for Arizona’s David Johnson from the running back/wide receiver/whatever position.

This was one of those all-time defensive games that sometimes go underappreciated. For Seattle: Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright both recorded 10 or more tackles. Cliff Avril and Frank Clark shared four sacks. Earl Thomas did Earl Thomas things. For Arizona, Deone Bucannon had one of those all-over-the-field games at a position he’s basically invented. Chandler Jones and Markus Golden both forced fumbles, and Jones and Calais Campbell basically lived in Seattle’s backfield.

I can see why this is the sort of tied game people lose the run of themselves about, because it was incredibly frustrating for the neutral, casual fan, or heck, people who like offensive competence. Offense will always be more popular than defense, and that’s fine, but defense is on top in the NFL lately. This game did also show off two poor offensive lines – okay, Arizona had its moments, but Seattle is the proverbial four-blocking-sleds-and-a-piece-of-tarp that I’m desperately trying to coin as my catchphrase. When the offense can’t get going because there’s no line, it means that most plays end in frustration for the offense, and those that don’t end up being short passes and dump-offs because that’s all there’s chance to do.

Gus Frerotte Headbutts A Wall

In 1997, Washington and the New York Giants played out a 7-7 tie. But I just wanted to have a paragraph featuring this so you could all go to Youtube and watch Gus Frerotte headbutt a wall. He gave himself a sprained neck and missed the rest of the game. It’s funny, because it’s self-inflicted!

Donovan McNabb didn’t know you could have a tie game

The Bengals and Eagles tied at 13-13 in 2008, and Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb said after the game that he didn’t know games could end in a tie. Tie games, man. What is it that they do to people that just makes everything weird?

Ah, Go On, Psychoanalyse America

No! But I will offer a theory. Being cool with ties comes from European sport, and if you look at the bulk of European history, you’re looking at medieval and early modern times. Back then, most countries won some wars, lost some wars, and tended to nonetheless endure. Wars could end in stalemates without comparatively buggering countries, city-states, whatever. So you get a sort of feeling that sometimes cutting your losses, saying, “Good game, old chap”, and making sure your country has some time to heal before you go to war again over some minor perceived slight, is no bad thing.

Whereas American history, let’s say starts with independence in 1776, right as early modern turns into industrial era. Wars in modern times have tended to have more dire effects on the countries that lose them, and stalemates have been less an option. Also, being geographically distant, America hasn’t had to get deeply involved in the sort of war where sometimes you have to accept that no-one’s going to win and everything’s going wrong (until Vietnam!), so it never grew to be part of the national psyche. Geopolitical competitions were either won or lost – mostly in America’s case won, as they tended to end up pitted against nations who weren’t really their equal in whatever sphere the war was fought in. So because wars were meant to be won first and foremost, a stalemate becomes equivalent to a loss. Here endeth my theory.

Anything Else?

I’d like to see more tie games, but I am European. I think it rewards both teams, penalises neither, and just adds that little bit more intrigue when you’re trying to work out who the heck goes to the playoffs.

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