In the aftermath of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s collapse in Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals and subsequent hospitalization, the NFL’s focus has understandably been on his care and recovery even as the playoffs draw inexorably closer.
And while Hamlin’s health is paramount, at some point decisions must be made regarding the schedule – specifically as it pertains to the unfinished Bills-Bengals contest. The league announced Tuesday that the “game will not be resumed this week,” but stopped short of canceling it while also signaling Week 18’s schedule would move forward as planned.
During a conference call Wednesday, NFL executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy Jeff Miller said discussions regarding the Bills-Bengals game were ongoing, but that a decision regarding its fate would be revealed “in the coming days” as the teams, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others weigh options.
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Among the considerations:
Monday’s showdown between AFC East champion Buffalo and playoff-bound Cincinnati was expected to be a potential game of the year simply based on the quality of the teams, both legitimate Super Bowl 57 contenders led by superstar quarterbacks Josh Allen and Joe Burrow. In the 53 seasons “Monday Night Football” has been on the air, this matchup was only the third in the history of the series featuring two teams with at least 11 wins.
But also at stake?
► A Bills win would have given them the inside track to the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed – and the first-round bye and home-field advantage that comes with it. A Week 18 victory over the New England Patriots would have clinched the conference’s regular-season throne for Buffalo.
► A Bengals win would have given them the AFC North crown – and the home playoff game that comes with that – while putting Cincinnati squarely in the mix for the No. 1 seed thanks to a Week 13 defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs.
What will Week 18 decide?
The Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday and can unequivocally wrap up the AFC North with a win. If the Chiefs defeat the Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati has no path to home-field advantage and the bye. However, a loss by KC coupled with Bengals wins over the Ravens and Bills would mean the No. 1 seed for Cincinnati.
Conversely, a Bengals loss to the Ravens opens the door for Baltimore to win the AFC North – but that would also require a Cincinnati loss to Buffalo.
In Orchard Park, the Bills would need to beat New England on Sunday to remain in the race for the No. 1 seed. (A Patriots win puts them into the playoffs and clinches the top spot in the conference for the Chiefs – if they win, too.)
Could Bills-Bengals still be important after Week 18?
As detailed above, the No. 1 seed in the AFC and AFC North title could all be dependent on the outcome of the game, not to mention seeding elsewhere in the conference playoff bracket.
What are the NFL’s options?
Miller and Troy Vincent, the league’s executive VP of football operations, were fairly mum Wednesday regarding how the NFL will move forward with the Bills-Bengals game, but these seem to be the most logical alternatives:
► Cancel the game and use team winning percentages to determine playoff ramifications. It’s the cleanest solution logistically and prevents Bills players from quickly returning to a venue where their teammate went down and all the emotions associated with that event. However, in all likelihood, that would mean the Chiefs (13-3), who lost to Buffalo (12-3) in Week 6, would almost certainly win the AFC’s top seed. That in turn means the Bills could wind up back in Arrowhead Stadium, where they’ve been eliminated from the postseason the last two years, with a Super Bowl trip at stake. Hardly seems fair. It would also mean the Ravens (10-6) would have no opportunity to win the AFC North, nor would the Bengals (11-4) have a claim to the No. 1 seed.
► Push the playoffs back a week and play Bills-Bengals after Week 18. If the outcome of the game still widely affects the playoff picture, the league could play it next week and push the postseason back a week while eliminating the bye week prior to the Super Bowl. It would allow for the completion of the regular season – a feat the NFL even managed to do during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 – but would create obvious planning bottlenecks ahead of Super Sunday, which is scheduled to be played in Glendale , Arizona, on Feb. 12.
There is a precedent for the league shifting its schedule, the 2001 season paused after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That required Week 2 games to jump to the end of the regular season, and Super Bowl 36 had to be pushed back a week. It wound up being a huge jigsaw for the league – the New Orleans’ Superdome, site of that season’s Super Bowl, had previously been booked for an auto dealers convention on the day the game was ultimately played – but everything eventually fell into place. Yet it must be noted the NFL had a lot more runway to solve those issues than it did with Week 18 just days away.
Are the Bills ready to play Sunday?
Buffalo players have not spoken publicly since Monday night. They had a walkthrough Wednesday in preparation for Sunday’s game with the Patriots. However, Vincent was asked Wednesday if the Bills even want to play this weekend given their mental and emotional scars.
He admitted the team’s focus has been on Hamlin’s well-being and that his communication with the club and coach Sean McDermott, who is scheduled to address the media Thursday, has “just strictly been around making sure they’re OK. … It is tough, and Coach is still fighting.”
ESPN reported Thursday morning that Hamlin’s father, Mario, addressed the team via a Zoom call Wednesday and provided an update on his son’s progress.
Still, the trauma is hardly limited to Buffalo and Cincinnati with players around the league clearly rattled.
“It’s definitely a heavy, sensitive day,” Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday as his team returned to work.
“Let’s be honest, nobody’s fine. … Our spirituality playbook was opened today, and we’re working through it.”
However by mid-morning Thursday, Hamlin’s condition was markedly better, the Bills tweeted, “Damar has shown remarkable improvement over the past 24 hours. While still critically ill, he has demonstrated that he appears to be neurologically intact. His lungs continue to heal and he is making steady progress.
“We are grateful for the love and support we have received.”
There has been no indication that the Bills won’t play this weekend, but such an outcome would likely render any other possible course of action moot.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.