The NFL has successfully navigated multiple COVID-19 outbreaks this year, without ever having to pull the pin on an 18th week. As Week 17 approaches, the league has one more regular-season challenge.
With the Browns apparently in the throes of a full-blown outbreak, Sunday’s Steelers-Browns game becomes jeopardized. Unlike other weeks, however, postponing the contest to Monday or Tuesday will serve only to complicate matters on the back end.
As one team executive connected to neither the Browns nor the Steelers opined to PFT on Wednesday morning, the league will strongly resist any potential postponement of the game, because of the impact it will have on Pittsburgh’s preparation for the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Thus, the league likely will compel the Browns to play on Sunday, no matter how many players the Browns may be missing. But what if positives keep being generated as Sunday approaches? The Browns won’t be able to practice and, at some point, Cleveland players will become as concerned as Baltimore players were about returning to the facility and/or entering the stadium locker room and/or being on the sideline with others who may be shedding virus.
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.
Also, would it be fair for the Steelers for every potential wild-card opponent (except the Browns) to get a full week off before playing an elimination game?
Delaying the postseason by a full week also would create more opportunities for other outbreaks, which could further complicate the playoffs, potentially undermining the integrity of the results.
It’s also possible, if Pittsburgh-Cleveland can’t safely be played, that the league would cancel the game entirely, if the Colts lose to the Jaguars on Sunday, clinching a playoff berth for the Browns. Given that the Jags have lost 14 games in a row, that seems like a fairly remote possibility.
So, yes, the Steelers-Browns game needs to be played. And it needs to be played as scheduled. Whether that’s possible will be determined in the coming days.