NFL approves adjustment to playoff rules, resulting in potential neutral site AFC title game and coin toss

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NFL team owners voted Friday to pass a group of adjusted playoff scenarios resulting from the league’s “no contest” cancellation of the Monday night game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.

The league’s resolution opens the door to a possible neutral site game in the AFC championship, based on a handful of potential outcomes. It will also create a coin-flip scenario to determine home-field advantage for a Bengals-Baltimore Ravens wild-card game if the Ravens defeat Cincinnati on Sunday. These alterations override the league’s previous ruling on canceled games, which would have followed traditional seeding rules based on overall winning percentages.

"We believe this is a focused approach that would only affect four teams and directly address the potential inequity of 30 teams playing 17 games and two teams playing 16 games," said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a Zoom call on Friday.

The team owners' vote became necessary after the league took the unprecedented step to cancel Monday night’s game following the hospitalization of Bills safety Damar Hamlin after he suffered cardiac arrest during the first quarter. Due to playoff seeding being in the balance for Buffalo and Cincinnati, Goodell and the league’s competition committee drew up multiple scenarios that would work to eliminate potential seeding “inequities” due to the Bills and Bengals playing one less game in 2022-23 than other playoff qualifiers.

The decision to allow the Bills and Bengals to complete 2022-23 with a 16-game schedule now places specific AFC title game qualifiers on those two teams for only the 2022-23 season. That means the change is a one-time alteration that will also allow Goodell to choose the AFC title game site. According to the resolution:

Resolved, that for the 2022 season only, the AFC Championship Game will be played at a neutral site, to be determined by the Commissioner, if (A) the participating teams played a different number of regular season games; and (B) the lower seeded team in the Championship Game could have been the number one seed in the AFC if a full 17-game regular season had been played by all AFC clubs

NFL team owners approved the playoff changes proposed by the league and its competition committee to address
NFL team owners approved the playoff changes proposed by the league and its competition committee to address "competitive effects" after Monday's Bills-Bengals game was declared a no contest following Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest. (Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

The precise scenarios involving the teams were released by the league on Thursday night. They are:

Scenario 1: Buffalo and Kansas City both win or tie in Week 18 — a Buffalo vs. Kansas City AFC championship game would be at a neutral site.

Scenario 2: Buffalo and Kansas City both lose in Week 18 and Baltimore wins or ties — a Buffalo vs. Kansas City AFC championship game would be at a neutral site.

Scenario 3: Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Cincinnati wins — a Buffalo or Cincinnati vs. Kansas City AFC championship game would be at a neutral site.

Furthermore, if Baltimore defeats Cincinnati on Sunday, it will have defeated the divisional opponent Bengals twice but will not be able to host a playoff game because Cincinnati would have a higher winning percentage for a 16-game schedule than Baltimore would for a 17-game schedule.

If Baltimore defeats Cincinnati and if those two clubs are scheduled to play a wild-card game against one another, the site for that game would be determined by a coin toss. If Cincinnati wins Sunday, or if Baltimore and Cincinnati are not scheduled to play one another in the wild-card round, the game sites would be determined by the regular scheduling procedures.

NFL competition committee chair Rich McKay said later Friday that there were amendments proposed to split the decisions about the AFC title game and the Bengals-Ravens coin flip into separate motions, but they ultimately didn't pass.

"Some teams were not happy with it, but it was done with the interest of all 32," McKay said.