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Bengals-Bills Scheduling Options, Impact on Playoff Seeding

The game could be declared a no-contest by the commissioner or the NFL could create a Week 19, giving bye weeks to the other 12 teams in the playoffs.

It’s obviously been a tough week in the NFL. Let’s get to your mailbag questions like usual, some related to Damar Hamlin, some touching on other topics …

From Phillies Talk (@philliepisstalk): Obv Hamlin’s health is paramount and first priority. What seems like the most plausible outcome for rescheduling games or maintaining competitive balance? Pushing season back a week, a no contest from [Monday] night? Definitely not the most important issue, but one all fans are curious about.

From Raymond Nuznoff (@mrstingray93): Do you think it’s possible the NFL just pushes the schedule back a week, like during the COVID season, and gives every player a chance to regroup? I mean how does any player take the field right now with a clear conscience?

Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd pulls in a 14-yard pass for a touchdown against the Bills in Week 17.

No decision has been made on whether Monday night's Bills-Bengals matchup will be resumed. 

Phils and Raymond, on the league’s Wednesday conference call, I asked specifically about the idea of the NFL doing what you suggest—essentially creating a Week 19, moving the playoffs back a week, and eliminating the Super Bowl bye week as to not change the Super Bowl date (it’d be tough to move the Super Bowl because of logistics)—and they didn’t shoot it down out of hand. Right now, it seems like all options are on the table.

None of them are completely clean. Here are a few …

• Creating a Week 19 works for a lot of reasons. The problem? You’d be giving bye weeks to the other 12 teams in the playoffs, putting the Bills and Bengals at a disadvantage and potentially having the Chiefs and Eagles working off consecutive bye weeks. And not that this should be a factor, but it’d also blow up the NFL’s new Pro Bowl setup.

• The other relatively clean scenario would be to declare Bills-Bengals a no-contest. The Chiefs, who lost to both Cincinnati and Buffalo, would benefit in two ways. One, it’d give them control of securing the No. 1 seed, something they didn’t have at 8 p.m. ET Monday. Two, it’d lock them in, at worst, as the No. 2 seed, whereas before Monday Night Football, there was a chance they could fall to the No. 3 seed. And that’s a big deal because it could set up a potential Bengals-Chiefs divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

• NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could work with the Chiefs and say he’d judged them against the Bills and Bengals “after 16 games,” which would give the Bills a chance to catch the Chiefs on Sunday, but not the Bengals (along those lines, I’d be interested to see what Chiefs owner Clark Hunt’s involvement would be in this).

• The league could theoretically award wins to both the Bengals and Bills. But this one and the “after 16 games” idea both could be problematic from a precedent standpoint.

Then, there’s another idea Chris Gasper of the Boston Globe brought up to me that I actually liked. The league would award the top seed to the Bills for beating the Chiefs, give Buffalo the week off, then reschedule the Patriots to play the Steelers this weekend in Pittsburgh (with the Browns canceled, which would work because Cleveland and New England already got all their home games in) to help determine the final playoff spot.

But if that was happening, it’d have happened by now.

The thing with all of this is that, regardless of what you do, a team will be adversely affected. Given the circumstances, though, I think everyone can deal with it. 

From Steven (@ScubaSteveSiano): Given that the Hamlin play was a pretty normal football play, do we as fans need to rethink our fandom or do we need to accept that as these guys get bigger, faster, stronger, we may actually see a player die on the field?

Steven, I personally understand, and respect the sentiment, but I don’t think so. I think a lot of this has shifted from 30 years ago—when players were unknowingly taking risks and the league was hiding information on concussions from them. The dynamic is different now, with the players having better information on the risks they’re taking, and more being done to protect them, as the athletes, like you said, get bigger, faster and stronger.

I also think sports such as boxing, mixed martial arts and hockey come with plenty of risk and remain popular, even if not as popular as football.

And again, I’m not saying I wouldn’t respect others’ decisions to stop watching because they can’t stomach what happens on the field. Seeing things like we all did Monday isn’t easy for anyone. But I don’t think being able to get through those things and continue watching the sport should lead to any sort of moral judgment. 

From GPenddak (@GPenddak): How do these players across the league recover mentally from this and play?

It’s a great question, and I don’t have the answer.

The unfortunate reality is that most players have seen teammates and opponents endure gruesome injuries and been told the show must go on—with a drill being moved or a cart taking a player off the field to accommodate a game or practice resuming in the aftermath. I think what makes this different, and I certainly don’t want to speak for the players going through it, is that there’s still a massive amount of uncertainty lingering over what was a life-and-death situation on the field Monday night in Cincinnati.

So you can say players will reckon with this like they do other bad injuries. Maybe some will. I just can’t say for sure that it’s that simple for everyone. And my feeling would be it probably isn’t for the Bills.

From SecretNFLInsider (@NflSecret): If the Bears get the No. 1 overall pick, do you envision strong interest in teams looking to trade up for a QB?

Secret Insider, I think last Saturday’s Peach Bowl informs this conversation. Over those four hours, Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud really helped himself. Here’s what one NFC exec said to me in the aftermath: “That he was doing it without star players was huge. It’s all the stuff he was busted on—that he was good, but it was more about the star receivers or the line. He was without his top two receivers, top two backs, best tight end, that all counts for something.”

And so does the fact that these things traditionally can ebb and flow a bunch.

How does that affect the Bears? Well, if a quarterback gets hot over the next few months in workouts—and that can happen—then the value of the No. 1 pick would multiply, whether it’s Stroud, Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Florida’s Anthony Richardson or anyone else. If those guys are all close to one another and none of them separate as particularly special, then the tension for teams to trade up probably won’t be there. Also, buzz on what the Texans—who, in your scenario, would have the second pick—will do could certainly affect the pick’s value, too.

Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud in the Peach Bowl

Stroud completed 23-of-34 passes for 348 yards and fourth touchdowns in the Peach Bowl.

From jermaine jones (@jermaine611): Can you see teams trading up for Stroud? I see him as a Seahawk.

Jermaine, I can say a few things about Stroud. One, he has an NFL build. Two, while he’s no Justin Fields, he has good (not great) athleticism for the position. Three, he throws one of the prettiest balls you’ll ever see and can thread it into tight windows with accuracy and anticipation like few can.

The biggest questions on him going into the Peach Bowl concerned his toughness, pocket movement and ability to make plays out of structure—some wondered if he was a seven-on-seven quarterback. One game won’t put those questions to bed. But the Peach Bowl did show his progress and an ability to learn from his issues. So the questions will be: One, why didn’t this side of Stroud come along earlier? And, two, can he be that guy on a consistent basis as a pro?

Based on what we saw Saturday, I think a team with a high pick will get an answer they like to the first question, answer yes to the second question and bet Stroud will continue to improve. Right now, the Seahawks are sitting there with the third pick. I’d bet he’ll be there for them—if they want him.

From Ty Kinney (@TyKinney12): What’s your thought on the next Broncos head coach?

Ty, I said this a couple of weeks ago and I’ll reiterate it now: I think Denver needs someone to stand up to Russell Wilson. I’ve also heard that—after how 2022 went—new CEO Greg Penner’s going to want someone with previous head-coaching experience or, at the very least, big-time leadership chops to lead the team.

Would Sean Payton tie his second act to Wilson? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m a little skeptical, but I also know the Waltons (Broncos’ owners) have deep pockets and are one of the teams with the financial wherewithal to keep bidding on Payton until he says yes.

If it’s not Payton, I think Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, as we said in the Dec. 26 MAQB, will be in Penner’s crosshairs. There’s a Stanford connection between Penner and Harbaugh, and Harbaugh also knows, through Stanford, Denver minority owner (and former secretary of state) Condoleezza Rice. I feel pretty confident saying Harbaugh would have no problem putting his foot down with Wilson and could pretty quickly establish a tough, hard-nosed culture around the quarterback.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn makes sense, too, because of his relationship with Broncos GM George Paton, background from Seattle with Wilson, and experience as a head coach. And then I think the idea of a square-jawed ex-player (Harbaugh’s one, too, of course) such as 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans or Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo could make sense. There are a lot of quality candidates who will get interviews in this coaching cycle.

The good news, Broncos fans, is that resources won’t be an issue here, and the roster’s still in a decent spot.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Likelihood that Jim Harbaugh is back coaching in the NFL next year?

Matt, I can’t say for sure. I think he has unfinished business in the league, he’s almost 60 and the past few years have probably shown him that finding an NFL job again is no sure thing.

His first few years at Michigan, NFL teams pursued him, and he rebuffed that interest. Then, around 2019, interest started to dissipate. And by ’20, the calls on Harbaugh to land a job in the pros were outgoing, not incoming. Last year, you had the Vikings’ job, and that ship sailed quickly. And this year, you have real NFL interest again.

If you’re Harbaugh and you want to coach in the league again, are you sure a year or two from now the shot to make the jump will be there? Or would you be at least a little concerned that the older you get, the tougher it’ll get?

Again, I don’t know whether Harbaugh will do it or not. But I can see why he’s interested. And I think there’s a good chance he’ll go for those reasons.

From Jason Green (@HeelofaPanther): Does Harbaugh and the Panthers have any traction or all speculation?

Jason, I don’t think it’s speculation. They’ve talked. He’s a little outside how Panthers owner David Tepper has been operating—my understanding is a lot of Carolina’s research has focused on young, offensive-minded coaches, while over time the probability of Steve Wilks sticking has increased—but he’d bring credibility to a team that could use some, and the roster will be seen by some as being a quarterback away.

So I don’t think it’s the most likely scenario, but far from impossible. 

From jermaine jones (@jermaine611): Why does the NFL never talk about expanding and which areas would be a prime location?

Jermaine, this is a pretty easy one to answer—for the NFL to expand again, it’d have to be a value add for the owners. In other words, whatever the new markets are, they’d have to boost revenues by more than 1/32 of what the league already makes. The reason why, of course, is because the owners cut the pie up 32 ways now, and I doubt they’d cut it up 34 ways (it’d probably have to be an even number coming in) only to take a smaller piece of it.

The only markets I can see doing that for the league would be international markets, and it doesn’t seem like going there is the plan for right now.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers escapes a Vikings defender during their Week 17 matchup in Green Bay.

The final playoff spot in the NFC could be at stake when Rodgers and the Packers face the Lions on Sunday Night Football.

From trenton (@MorantMVPSzn): Why did the NFL put the Lions-Packers game on SNF if the Lions could be eliminated before kickoff?

Trenton, it’s about ratings. Honestly, the natural one for that time slot was Jaguars-Titans, because it’s the one game that would have real stakes for both teams regardless of what happens earlier in the day. But those are small markets, and the one end of the quarterback matchup (no offense intended to anyone) would be a third-stringer, and the other end plays (again, no offense intended to anyone) in Jacksonville.

Packers-Lions gives the league Aaron Rodgers, and Detroit’s a pretty big market. The game will mean something to at least one of the teams (Green Bay), regardless. Does the chance the Seahawks beat the Rams (pretty good chance of that) and eliminate Detroit hurt this one? Sure it does. But evidently not enough to risk the ratings.

It’s always interesting to see the league’s decisions on things like this, because they can inform you of where priorities really lie.

From THEE Harsha (@hr072): Bigger surprise—Raiders/Broncos collapse or Tomlin could finish with a winning record?

If we’re talking about the beginning of the season, the former. You’d have thought at least one of the two would’ve been in the hunt, or in the playoffs, going into Week 18. If we’re talking in midseason, the latter. The Steelers were 3–7 … Three. And. Seven. That meant, with a roster in transition and a rookie quarterback, Tomlin would need to have Pittsburgh go 6–1 the rest of the way to avoid his first sub-.500 season in 16 as Steelers’ coach.

And here we are, with the Steelers a win over Cleveland away from pulling it off.

Remarkable job by Tomlin this year.

From Ball Placement Podcast (@ball_placement): In light of this, will it give pause to the league’s expansion to 18 games or is it too late? Follow-up: not that this was a helmet-to-helmet, but is there any thought/talks to using those smooth foam covers in real game action?

Again, I don’t think this incident prompts that kind of action. But we’ll see what happens.