NFL OK’s plan for neutral-site AFC championship
NFL owners have approved a plan that leaves open the possibility of a neutral-site AFC Championship Game and could determine home-field advantage for a wild-card game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens by a coin flip.
In the wake of the cancellation of Monday’s Bills-Bengals game, the following scenarios based on Week 18 results were approved for holding the title game at a neutral site:
• If Buffalo (12-3) and Kansas City (13-3) both win or tie, a Bills-Chiefs championship game would be at a neutral site.
• If Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Baltimore wins or ties, a Bills-Chiefs championship game would be at a neutral site.
• If Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Cincinnati (11-4) wins, a Bills or Bengals vs. Chiefs championship game would be at a neutral site.
If the Ravens win Sunday over the Bengals and are matched against Cincinnati in an AFC wild-card game, the site would be determined by a coin flip. If Cincinnati wins or if the two teams are not matched against each other after a potential Ravens win, regular scheduling procedures would be used.
A three-fourths majority (24 of 32) of the owners was needed Friday to approve the changes, which the NFL said in a resolution would be in place for the 2022 season only.
The potential neutral sites have not been determined. The seeds will hold up throughout the playoffs. If Buffalo and Kansas City both win this weekend, the Chiefs will get the bye to the divisional round. If Buffalo wins and Kansas City loses, the Bills will be the No. 1 seed and get the bye, in which case no neutral sites would come into play.
The planned changes were made Friday over the apparent objection of the Bengals, with coach Zac Taylor saying his team felt it was at a disadvantage by the proposal.
“It’s important for the team to know that, because somebody’s got to fight for you. It’s clearly not coming from the league,” Taylor said Friday. “It’s nice to have our ownership and front office support the players like they have. That is important for us.”
Monday’s game between Buffalo and Cincinnati was suspended with less than six minutes left in the first quarter and the Bengals leading 7-3 when Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after making a tackle. His heartbeat was restored on the field before he was transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
In announcing the decision to cancel the game Thursday, the NFL cited three key factors: The outcome would have no bearing on which teams qualified for the postseason; playing the game would have altered the playoff schedule for the remaining teams; and not playing the game would allow all clubs to know the postseason possibilities before the start of Week 18.
Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn is on the competition committee, which approved the scenarios Thursday. In a memo obtained by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, Blackburn urged teams to vote against the scenarios. Her reasoning stemmed from the timing of a rule change in this scenario away from the standard of winning percentages.
“The proper process for making rule change is in the off-season,” Blackburn wrote. “It is not appropriate to put teams in a position to vote for something that may introduce bias, favor one team over another or impact their own situation when the vote takes place immediately before the playoffs.”
Taylor also repeatedly emphasized Friday the need to follow current rules.
“There’s several instances this season when the club is fined or people in our building are fined and told to follow the rules, it’s black and white, it’s in the rulebook,” Taylor said. “So now when we point out the rules and you’re told, ‘We’re going to change that,’ that seems… I don’t want to hear about fair and equitable when that’s the case.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had acknowledged in a statement Thursday that he recognized “there is no perfect solution.”
“As we considered the football schedule, our principles have been to limit disruption across the league and minimize competitive inequities,” he said.
The Chiefs abstained from voting on the proposed AFC playoff changes, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, with the thinking that teams directly impacted by the changes should not vote due to bias.
The Bills announced Friday that Hamlin had been taken off a breathing tube and had begun talking with his care team, family and teammates.
ESPN’s Ben Baby contributed to this report.
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