The NFL is moving forward with its Week 18 games after the tragedy that interrupted the final game of last week’s slate between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills.
Bills safety Damar Hamlin remains in intensive care in the University of Cincinnati hospital, but the NFL finalized the Week 18 scheduled on Wednesday, and NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that there is no consideration being made about the Bills not playing their final game against the New England Patriots this Sunday.
But that leaves the unfinished Week 17 game between the Bills and Bengals unresolved. The NFL has left the door open to that game being finished at some point, but how that might happen, with the regular season set to end on Sunday, is difficult to envision.
The league does have the advantage of a built-in bye week between the conference championship games and the Pro Bowl
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk put forth one potential solution in an appearance on 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday, suggesting that the Bills and Bengals could play on Wild Card Weekend, with the AFC Wild Card games pushed back. The NFC teams would then get a bye the following week as the AFC caught up, and the divisional and conference rounds would get pushed back a week.
That’s feasible because it would leave most of the league’s TV windows intact and get all the games played.
But do all the games really need played? What happens if the Bills and Bengals don’t play?
If the game is declared a no contest, and removed from the schedule, that means that the Bengals will clinch the AFC North. The worst they can finish is 11-5 with a loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, and Baltimore can only get to 11-6.
That would also mean the Kansas City Chiefs will clinch the AFC’s only bye with a win over the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday, or a Bills loss to the Patriots. The Chiefs are 13-3 and the Bills are 12-3. The only way the Bills could clinch that top berth would be with a win and a Chiefs loss.
I doubt the Bills will raise too much ire about whatever decision is made, but the Bengals winning the AFC North without playing their entire schedule is certainly unfair to the Ravens. The Bengals also had a chance to pass Buffalo and Kansas City and get the bye themselves that would be taken away from them.
The Bills could lighten that load significantly if they just forfeited their game against the Bengals. Cincinnati would get a win and eliminate any complaints from Baltimore and the No. 1 seed could be settled fairly.
But there’s also the question of financial compensation if the game is not played. Someone is going to owe 70,000 ticketholders in Cincinnati their money back. More impactfully, the NFL will owe ABC 1/17th of their Monday Night Football package back. Who ends up holding the bag for all of that?
The plan to push the the playoffs back is clunky and inelegant, but it does make everyone’s money whole. In the NFL, sometimes that takes precedent.
It doesn’t seem like anyone really wants to finish that game at this point, but unless the financial issues surrounding canceling can be resolved, that might end up being what happens.
As far as the Pittsburgh Steelers, none of these decisions really impact them all that much. The Steelers still need to win and have the Bills lose to the Patriots and the New York Jets beat the Miami Dolphins.
But of course, if the Steelers make the playoffs, they’ll be playing on the road against the No. 2 seed in the AFC in the Wild Card game, and when and where that happens could be determined by what the league and the teams involved decide to do with that final game.