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What should the NFL do about the suspended game between the Bills and Bengals? Unprecedented, here are the options and the best path

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While the NFL community awaits further updates on Damar Hamlin and prays for a speedy recovery, the league is also actively working on what to do with the remainder of the regular season and subsequent postseason.

There is no precedent for what the NFL is facing right now. Never before has an NFL game started, been postponed and never resumed, according to CBS Sports research. And not since 1935 has the league had a season where some teams played more than others, when Philadelphia and Boston each played 11 games in a 12-game schedule, with the game being canceled due to bad weather.

The simplest scheduling option for the NFL is to go ahead with the full Week 18 game slate, which the league announced Tuesday it planned to do, and ultimately decide the Bills-Bengals game a no contest or tie.

“This conversation about what we do with this game has started,” said Jeff Miller, NFL executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, on Wednesday afternoon. “[NFL EVP of football operations] troy [Vincent]commissioner [Roger Goodell]some of us are involved in these conversations, but they are ongoing.

“Obviously we will have to make a decision on that in the next few days, which we will. But there are many considerations in place and many people we want to consult – including the clubs involved – before that decision is final.”

While there is no established precedent for what to do here, there is a roadmap in the form of the league’s “Emergencies and Unfair Acts Provisions in the Policy Manual for Member Clubs: Game Operations,” according to the NFL’s rulebook.

A source provided CBS Sports with this policy manual, where it states that “[a]The authority to cancel, postpone or end games rests solely with the Commissioner.”

The handbook states that if it proves impossible to reschedule the game within two days of the original date, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “would attempt to schedule it for Wednesday of next week. The Commissioner will keep in mind the potential for competitive inequalities if one or both of the clubs involved already have a game scheduled closer to Wednesday of that week (e.g. a game on Monday or Thursday).”

But moving that game to next Wednesday, Jan. 11 would create the kind of competitive inequality the league hopes to avoid. The Bills and Bengals would have to play on Sunday, then play again on Wednesday, and then one or both would have to play on the weekend in the wild card round. They would be playing on less rest than any other playoff team, and presumably their lower-ranked opponents would be playing on more rest.

The NFL has dealt with multiple schedule changes in the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to COVID-19. The Week 12, 2020 game between the Ravens and Steelers had to be postponed to a Wednesday.

“Everything is being considered and we look forward to diving full throttle into completing this call,” Vincent said Wednesday on a Zoom call with media. “We still obviously have to dedicate time to that particular area, but all of these things, these guiding principles that have guided us through the 2020 season with COVID, all of these things will be things that will guide us through this conversation.

“And making sure that proper equity is in place. And as we’ve seen, there may be a lack of equity or it may not be perfect. But it will allow those who are participating or who have earned that right to play to continue to play.”

The handbook states that if the game cannot be completed later, Goodell would have the power to declare the winner based on the score of the game at the time it was adjourned or suspend the game without a winner.

As only nine minutes of the game have passed with the Bengals leading 7–3, there is no way for Goodell to declare the Bengals the winners. It would be unreasonable to “project that its resumption would not change its final outcome”, as required by the rulebook.

The handbook states that if a game is suspended without a winner, Goodell would have the power to treat the game as a draw or determine team records based on winning percentage.

“If a game is cancelled, a team’s position in its division or conference (eg, wild card qualification in the playoffs or position in the playoff standings) will be determined based on its final record,” the handbook reads.

It’s this option that, after talking to sources over the week, appears to be the least troubling. This would mean the Bills would not need to return to Cincinnati to finish the game. This would keep the rest of the league static. The biggest question facing the league would be whether a no-contest or a draw is the best option.

If deemed a no-contest this would require a manipulation of the playoff ranking qualifications which would be undertaken by Goodell in consultation with club ownership groups.

Would AFC seeding be based on winning percentage? That seems to be the clearest way forward. Calling the game a tie would eliminate the Bengals from contention for the No. 1 seed, and the Chiefs would be able to secure the top seed with a Saturday win against the Raiders.

As Vincent said, the league is discussing a myriad of scenarios and more disturbing options are still in play as of Wednesday afternoon. The league has long resisted changing its playoff schedule. Delaying the playoffs by a week either way would either add a rest week for teams that didn’t earn a seed or potentially strip a top seed of its own bye. It would also mean that both Super Bowl teams would not have a week of rest before the Arizona game, as there is almost no chance the league will reschedule Super Bowl LVII on February 12th.