NFL approves plan for possible neutral-site AFC title game
NFL owners have approved a plan that leaves open the possibility of an AFC Championship Game at a neutral site and could determine home-field advantage for a wild-card game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens on 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 against the Bengals and face Cincinnati in an AFC wild-card game, the spot will be determined by a coin flip. If Cincinnati wins or if the two teams don’t match up after a potential Ravens win, regular scheduling procedures will be used.
A three-quarters majority (24 of 32) of owners was needed Friday to approve the changes, which the NFL said in a resolution would only be in effect for the 2022 season.
Potential neutral sites have not been determined. The seeds will remain throughout the playoffs. If Buffalo and Kansas City both win this weekend, the Chiefs will receive a bye in the divisional round. If Buffalo wins and Kansas City loses, the Bills will be the No. 1 seed. 1 and will receive a bye, and no neutral sites will enter the game.
The planned changes were made Friday over apparent opposition from the Bengals, with coach Zac Taylor saying his team felt it was disadvantaged by the proposal.
“It’s important for the team to know that because somebody has to fight for you. It’s obviously not coming from the league,” Taylor said Friday. “It’s great for our ownership and front office to support players like them. This 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 result would have no bearing on which teams qualify for the postseason; playing the game would have changed 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 scripts Thursday. In a memo obtained by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, Blackburn asked teams to vote against the scripts. Her reasoning stemmed from the timing of a rule change away from the standard winning percentages used in this scenario.
“The proper process to make a rule change is in the offseason,” Blackburn wrote. “It is not appropriate for teams to be put in a position to vote on something that could be biased, favor one team over another or affect their standing when voting takes place immediately before the playoffs.”
Taylor also repeatedly emphasized Friday the need to follow the current rules.
“There have been a few times this season where the club has been fined or people in our building have been fined and told to follow the rules, it’s black and white, it’s in the regulations,” Taylor said. “So now when we point out the rules and you’re told, ‘We’re going to change it,’ that seems … I don’t want to hear about fair and equal when that’s the case.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged in a statement Thursday that he recognized there is “no perfect solution.”
“As we have considered the football schedule, our principles have been to limit disruption across the league and minimize competitive disparities,” he said.
The Bills announced Friday that Hamlin had been removed from a breathing tube and had begun speaking with his care team, family and teammates.
ESPN’s Ben Baby contributed to this report.