For two days, the NFL world has stopped to honor and pray for Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who suffered cardiac arrest in Monday night’s game against the Bengals. On Wednesday afternoon, the Bills provided some positive information, announcing that Hamlin showed “signs of improvement” over the last day, though he remained in critical condition.
As tough as it is, though, the NFL has to get back to business. The league is set to play a full Week 18 schedule this weekend, including the Patriots-Bills game on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Orchard Park, N.Y.
But the NFL is in a tricky spot with Monday night’s Bengals-Bills game, which was suspended with 5:58 left in the first quarter and the Bengals leading, 7-3.
Bengals-Bills is a significant game for playoff seeding. It affects both of those teams, and several others. Moving the game to another date isn’t so easy. The Super Bowl is Feb. 12 in Arizona, no matter what. The playoff weekends are scheduled, and the TV networks have sold advertising.
On a conference call Wednesday, NFL executive vice president for communications Jeff Miller said no decision has been made with what to do with Bengals-Bills.
“Obviously, we are going to have to make a decision on that in the coming days, and we will,” Miller said.
The NFL has moved kickoff times before — particularly during the pandemic — and has suspended preseason games. But by all research and indications, Monday night’s game was the first time a regular-season game was suspended after kickoff.
“I think it’s uncharted territory at this point,” said Jim Steeg, a former 35-year NFL executive, including 26 in the league office.
The timing of the suspended game complicates matters. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the NFL postponed a week of games and moved the Super Bowl back a week, making it the league’s first February Super Bowl. But the NFL had four months to plan that. This time, the playoffs start in a week, and the Super Bowl is in five weeks.
There is no perfect solution for what to do with Bills-Bengals. Commissioner Roger Goodell and his executives have to find the least-bad option:
▪ The easiest answer for the NFL would be to cancel the game and declare it a no-contest. That would allow the NFL to proceed with Week 18 and the postseason as scheduled.
“My gut is that it won’t be played,” said Steeg, who was in charge of the NFL’s special events and oversaw the changes to the Super Bowl in the 2001 season. “Maybe if this happened eight weeks ago then you could figure something. But where you are right now with the timing of it, you’ve got six playoff games next weekend, and then you’ve got four the next week after that, then the championship games. Those are tough to move out of those, particularly given what the networks have, the inventory they have tied into it and broadcast time.”
Canceling the game would cut into the notion of fairness, however. It would give the Bills and Bengals 16 games, while all other teams play 17. And it would take control of the all-important No. 1 seed in the AFC away from the Bills and give it to the Chiefs.
If both win this weekend, the 14-3 Chiefs (.824) would be percentage points ahead of the 13-3 Bills (.813). The Bills would face the prospect of having to travel to Kansas City for an AFC Championship game, despite having a head-to-head win over the Chiefs.
The Ravens also would have reason to be upset. Even if the Ravens beat the Bengals on Sunday, the 11-5 Bengals (.688) would be percentage points ahead of the 11-6 Ravens (.647) for the AFC North title, which comes with a home playoff game. The Bengals can make it moot by beating the Ravens.
Of course, canceling a game hurts the bottom line — each game nets the NFL upward of $30 million in revenue, per Steeg’s estimation. And ESPN and its advertisers may want make-goods on the ads they weren’t able to show on Monday night.
The NFL wouldn’t confirm on Wednesday that in case the Bills and Bengals game is canceled, that it would determine playoff seeding by win percentage. But those were the rules the NFL adopted for one year in the spring of 2020, when it wasn’t sure how many games would be played in the pandemic.
▪ Another option would be to push back the playoffs a week and eliminate the bye week before the Super Bowl. The NFL could finish Bills-Bengals in Week 19, then proceed with the playoffs a week behind schedule.
Certainly, having the Bills and Bengals play all 17 games is ideal. But delaying the start of the playoffs does not seem realistic. The NFL has six games scheduled — two on Saturday, three on Sunday, and one on Monday — and the TV networks have sold the advertising and blocked out the programming windows.
It’s doubtful that the networks would be happy with a dark Week 19 of football, with just one game. There is simply no programming that can substitute the ratings bonanza that is an NFL playoff game.
▪ A third option could be a hybrid — starting the NFC playoffs and finishing Bengals-Bills the weekend of Jan. 14-15, delaying the start of just the AFC playoffs by a week, and eliminating the Super Bowl bye. The plan would also require the NFC teams having a bye after the wild-card round. Then the normal playoffs would resume for the divisional round.
This plan makes sense, but again, would cost the networks two games the first weekend and three games the second weekend. The NFL also would prefer not to eliminate the off week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, because that week is used to showcase the new Pro Bowl games, another event that the NFL and the networks have booked and sold.
The easiest option is to cancel the game. The other realistic options are to delay the playoffs a week. Whatever Goodell chooses, at least one team or fan base won’t be happy with it.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.