NFL owners have approved a resolution that could lead to a neutral site for the AFC championship in response to the cancellation of Monday night’s Bills-Bengals game after Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field.
The league held a special meeting Friday to consider the recommendation of Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s competition committee.
“We believe this is a focused approach that would only affect four teams and directly address the potential for competitive inequity resulting from 30 teams playing 17 games and two playing 16 games,” Goodell said in a video conference call. “It was critical for the owners to vote (Friday) so that clubs going into this weekend what they’re playing for.”
The league chose to cancel the Bills-Bengals game instead of resuming it this week or next week to avoid disrupting the start of the postseason and impacting the remainder of the playoff field.
Hamlin is breathing on his own and able to talk after having his breathing tube removed, his agent said Friday. It’s the latest step in his remarkable recovery in the four days since going into cardiac arrest during the game at Cincinnati. Hamlin even joined the Bills’ team meeting via videoconference.
The Bills-Bengals game had major playoff implications for the AFC. Buffalo (12-3) entered Monday night needing a win to maintain the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The Kansas City Chiefs (13-3) now hold that spot. The Bengals (11-4) had a chance to earn that top seed with two more wins and a loss by the Chiefs.
The AFC championship will be played at a neutral site if the participating teams played an unequal number of games and both could have been the No. 1 seed and hosted the game had all AFC clubs played a full 17-game regular season.
The league is considering several sites, including indoor and outdoor stadiums.
Those circumstances involve Buffalo or Cincinnati qualifying for the game as a road team. If Buffalo and Kansas City both win or tie this weekend, a Bills-Chiefs AFC title game would be at a neutral site.
If Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Baltimore wins or ties, a Bills-Chiefs AFC title game would be at a neutral site.
If Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Cincinnati wins, Bills or Bengals against Kansas City in the AFC title game would be at a neutral site.
Also, if Baltimore defeats Cincinnati in Week 18, the Ravens would have two wins over the Bengals, a divisional opponent, but Cincinnati will have a higher winning percentage for a 16-game schedule than Baltimore will for a 17-game schedule.
Therefore, if Baltimore defeats Cincinnati and those two clubs are schedule to play a wild-card game against each another, the site for that game would be determined by a coin toss.
If the Bengals win this weekend or if Baltimore and Cincinnati are not scheduled to play each other in the wild-card round, the game sites would be determined by the regular scheduling procedures.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor made it clear the team isn’t happy with the league changing the rules. The NFL’s 2022 policy manual for game operations states “a team’s standing in its division or in its conference” will be determined by winning percentage if a game is canceled. Due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the canceled game, the league proposed new rules.
“We just want the rules to be followed,” Taylor said. “When a game is canceled, you turn to winning percentage to clarify everything, so we don’t have to make up the rules. There’s several instances this season when the club is fined, or people in our building are fined, and we’re told to follow the rules. It’s black and white. It’s in the rule book. So, when you’re told we’re going to change that, I don’t want to hear about fair and equitable in that case.”
Rich McKay, the NFL competition committee chairman, said the teams had some input in the process. Katie Blackburn, the executive vice president for the Bengals, told the committee the team wasn’t in favor of the proposal.
“She made a presentation, pretty eloquent and made her points,” McKay said. “There was plenty (consideration) given to them because they are the affected team so you wanted to hear from them. I think on the neutral-site situation, basically all three teams going in had to kind of agree they were OK with that situation. Didn’t mean they’re going to vote for it, but they were OK with it. And so that always obviously helps with making a proposal like that.”