The NFL schedule has (luckily) avoided disaster in the weirdest football season any of us have ever seen. Sure, there were the occasional Tuesday games — and even a Wednesday afternoon game at one point — but, for the most part, the league’s adapted as best it could while dealing with the COVID pandemic that’s still sweeping the world.
As great as the NFL has done in dealing with various outbreaks around the league, Week 17 presents a serious problem that could throw off the entire NFL schedule, not only messing with playoff games, but also postseason scenarios.
That’s because the Browns-Steelers game on Sunday is important for both teams, with Cleveland having a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time in 18 years with a victory, and Pittsburgh just trying to stay healthy after locking up the No. 3 seed in the AFC in Week 16 with its win over the Colts. But due to rising positive cases of COVID in the Browns’ facility, could the game be moved to make sure the team isn’t punished and forced to play with backups at a variety of positions?
As of right now, the league plans to play the Browns-Steelers game as it currently sits on the NFL schedule. But at what point does it get too out of control and a competitive disadvantage occurs?
Per Pro Football Talk:
On a media call today focusing on the league’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, league officials said the game can be played safely in Cleveland.
The league has insisted it will not postpone games for competitive reasons. So, for instance, if the Browns find themselves in a situation similar to the Broncos when they had to shelve all their quarterbacks and use practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton at quarterback, the NFL would still make the Browns play on Sunday. Only if it were viewed as unsafe to play the game would the league postpone it.
This has to be some serious B.S. if you’re a Browns fan. We all saw what happened in the Browns-Jets game in Week 16 when Baker Mayfield was forced to play without his top four wideouts due to COVID contact tracing, as well as two of his starting offensive lineman due to illness and/or injury. The team looked flat, out of synch and ended up losing to a one-win team — which now puts them in a must-win situation against Pittsburgh.
The NFL insists that Cleveland doesn’t have an outbreak in its facility and that it’s just “multiple people in the organization exposed to COVID-19 in the community,” per the PFT article. That’s not enough to actually postpone the game versus Pittsburgh.
However, should it be deemed an outbreak in the next few days prior to kickoff, would the league decide it’s best to postpone the game and play it a week later? If so, the entire NFL schedule gets messed up, with playoff games being pushed back a week, and teams already in the playoffs (excluding the Steelers), getting an additional week off. That seems unfair to both the Browns and Steelers — should both get into the postseason and be forced to play without that extra rest.
Per Pro Football Talk:
If the game can’t be played, would Pittsburgh-Cleveland become the Week 18 game? That would push the entire postseason back by a full week. While the league has planned for that eventuality all year long, the sudden possibility of slamming the brakes on the playoffs for a week so that the Steelers and Browns can play one last regular-season game makes the prospect of an extra Sunday seem far less palatable than it did earlier this year.
The nightmare scenario for the league would be an outbreak in either Cleveland or Pittsburgh. But, unless that actually happens, the game will go on as planned and the NFL schedule won’t be impacted as badly as it could have been. Even if that means the Browns need to start a backup wideout at quarterback, so be it. But in such a meaningful game with huge playoff implications, it’d be nice to see the league hold off on the Browns-Steelers until both teams can field a good amount of core players. Sadly, that probably won’t happen.