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 by a coin toss.
Following the cancellation of the Bills-Bengals game on Monday, the following scenarios have been approved for the titular game to be staged at a neutral venue based on Week 18 results:
• If Buffalo (12-3) and Kansas City (13-3) both win or tie, a Bills Chiefs championship game would be played at a neutral venue.
• If Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Baltimore wins or draws, a Bills Chiefs championship game would be played at a neutral venue.
• If Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Cincinnati (11-4) wins, a championship game between the Bills or Bengals vs. Chiefs would be played at a neutral venue.
If the Ravens beat the Bengals on Sunday and face Cincinnati in an AFC wildcard game, the location would be determined by a coin toss. If Cincinnati wins, or if the two teams don’t face off after a potential Ravens win, regular scheduling procedures will be used.
On Friday, a three-quarters majority (24 of 32) of owners was required to approve the changes, which the NFL said in a resolution would apply only to the 2022 season.
The potential neutral sites have not been determined. The seeds will hold up through the playoffs. If Buffalo and Kansas City both win this weekend, the Chiefs will get the divisional round bye. If Buffalo wins and Kansas City loses, the Bills will be No. 1 and get the bye, in which case no neutral sides would come into play.
The proposed changes were made on Friday because of the Bengals’ apparent objection, with coach Zac Taylor saying his team feels disadvantaged by the proposal.
“It’s important for the team to know that because someone has to fight for you. It’s clearly out of the league,” Taylor said Friday. “It’s nice that our owners and front office are supporting the players the way they have been. That is important for us.”
Monday’s game between Buffalo and Cincinnati was halted in the first quarter with less than six minutes to go and the Bengals led 7-3 when Bill’s safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after a tackle. His heartbeat was restored in the field before being transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
In announcing the decision to cancel Thursday’s game, the NFL cited three key factors: The result would not affect which teams qualified 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 post-season possibilities before the start of Week 18.
Bengal’s executive vice president Katie Blackburn is a member of the competition committee that approved the scenarios on Thursday. In a memo from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, Blackburn urged teams to vote against the scenarios. Their reasoning stemmed from the timing of a rule change in this scenario, away from the standard win percentages.
“The proper process for rule changes occurs in the off-season,” Blackburn wrote. “It is not appropriate to allow teams to vote for something that could create bias, favor one team over another, or affect their own situation when the voting is taking place immediately before the playoffs.”
Taylor also repeatedly stressed on Friday the need to follow the rules in place.
“There are several instances this season where 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 rule book,” said Taylor. “So now when we point out the rules and you’re told, ‘We’re going to change that,’ it seems that … I don’t want to hear anything about fair and just, if that’s the case.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted in a statement Thursday that he realized “there is no such thing as a perfect solution.”
“When looking at the football plan, our principle was to limit disruption across the league and minimize competitive differences,” he said.
The Bills announced Friday that Hamlin had been taken off a breathing tube and had begun speaking to his care team, family and teammates.
ESPN’s Ben Baby contributed to this report.