In the wake of one of the most frightening events we have ever seen on a football field, the NFL has decided that the game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals will not be resumed this week, but no decision has been made as to whether it will be made up. With the health of Damar Hamlin at the forefront of our minds above all else, the implications of this decision on the NFL season itself feels extremely insignificant.
The postponement of the game was the right and only decision. The NFL appears set to move forward as planned with Week 18, but after that, we are not sure what will happen. Here’s everything we know at this time regarding the NFL playoff picture, including the fate of the AFC North and the first-round bye in the conference.
Implications of Canceling Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17
While the NFL has not officially canceled the game at the time of writing, let’s examine what it would mean if that were the case. By making the decision to cancel the game, the AFC playoff picture would be intriguingly poised. There are a number of things in play, so let’s go one by one, starting with the top seed in the AFC.
Entering last week, the Bills, Bengals, and Kansas City Chiefs were all in play for the top seed. If the Bills and Bengals do not play the game, then the assumption will be that all decisions will be made based on the winning percentage calculated with the Bills and Bengals playing just 16 games.
That means the Bengals cannot get to the first-round bye in the AFC in Week 18. The best they can finish is 12-4, with a winning percentage of 0.750. Even if the Chiefs lose in Week 18, they would be 13-4 with a 0.765 winning percentage. However, the Bills would still have a chance at the one seed if they beat the New England Patriots.
If the Chiefs lose and the Bills win, Buffalo would be 13-3 and have a 0.813 winning percentage. That would be enough to lock up the first-round bye. Unfortunately for the Bills, it is out of their control. If the Chiefs win and finish at 14-3, their winning percentage would be 0.824, giving them the first-round bye.
The next thing to consider is the AFC North. If the Bills vs. Bengals game is canceled, the Ravens cannot win the division. The best they could get to is 11-6 for a 0.647 winning percentage. Meanwhile, the worst the Bengals could be is 11-5, with a 0.688 winning percentage, which would be enough to win the division.
Even though the division would be locked up for the Bengals, there is still the second seed to play for and home-field advantage in the Divisional Round should these two teams meet again in the postseason.
Let’s assume the Chiefs win on Saturday and lock up the top seed in the AFC. In that scenario, the Bills would secure the second seed in the AFC with a win on Sunday. But if the Bills lose and the Bengals win, then things get complicated. Both teams would be 12-4, meaning we must look to the playoff tiebreakers for help.
The head-to-head aspect would not apply with the game being canceled, so we look to their conference record. The Bills and Bengals have 11 games in the conference. For both teams to get to 12-4, the Bengals would have to beat the Ravens, while the Bills lose to the Patriots. That would leave both teams at 8-3 in the conference.
The next tiebreaker is common opponents, but those 11 games in the conference also double as the common opponents. The two divisions played each other, and as both finished first in their respective divisions last year, they had the same opponents. That means we are once again tied at 8-3.
That moves us on to the strength of victory (SOV). Entering Week 18, the opponents the Bills have beaten combine for 92 wins. Meanwhile, the opponents that the Bengals have defeated have combined for 85 wins. With the assumption that the Bills lose to the Patriots and the Bengals beat the Ravens, that puts it 95-92 in favor of the Bengals.
When you compare their opponents, we can cancel out the eight victories against common opponents (Steelers, Patriots, Jets, Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, Titans, and Chiefs). That leaves each team with four victories to count. The Bills have the Packers, Lions, Bears, and Rams, while the Bengals have the Saints, Falcons, Panthers, and Buccaneers.
So, the Bills need to gain three wins in SOV over the Bengals this week to take it a stage further in the tiebreaker formula. With the Packers and Lions playing each other, the best the Bills can do is gain three wins. Meanwhile, the Bengals have the entire NFC South, so they should go at least 2-2. Both NFC South games ending in a tie would complicate matters, but the chances of two ties in games with no playoff implications seem extremely unlikely.
Therefore, what this all means is that if the Bills vs. Bengals game is canceled, the following can play out:
- The Chiefs will lock up the one seed with a win Saturday.
- If the Chiefs win, the Bills can secure the two seed with a win on Sunday.
- If the Chiefs lose, the Bills can get the one seed with a win Sunday.
- The Bengals are guaranteed to win the AFC North but cannot get to the one seed.
- The Bengals can finish as the two seed if they win and the Bills lose, but this would come down to the strength of victory tie-breaker.
The NFL Could Still Have the Bills and Bengals Face Off
While the game is not set to be resumed this week, the NFL has yet to rule out playing the game at a later date. Given what we have laid out above with the various seeding and divisional situations, that certainly makes some sense. If the Bills and Chiefs both win this week, the incident on Monday night would have cost the Bills the one seed and a first-round bye.
While that is highly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, the NFL may want to find a way to play this game between the Bills and Bengals for competitive balance.
The only feasible way for the NFL to have this game played would be to have a Week 19 where just the Bills and Bengals play, pushing the Wild Card Weekend back a week, and with it, pushing back the NFL playoffs up to Conference Championship week. That would mean the Bills could still play for the one seed, while if the Bengals lose to the Ravens this week, they would still be trying to clinch the AFC North. If the Chiefs lose in Week 18, the Bengals-Bills game could be for a first-round bye.
The logistics involved in this would be a nightmare. Playoff tickets have already been sold by teams that have won or were leading their division coming into Week 17, and fans could have potentially made travel arrangements based on that. There are also the shiny new Pro Bowl games that would no longer have a showcase week in between the championship games and the Super Bowl. An extremely insignificant loss, but still likely a financial loss for the NFL at the same time.
However, the biggest impact would likely be on the Bills and Bengals themselves. Let’s say the Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens win this week, keeping both the AFC’s top seed and the AFC North crown in play. The Bengals and Bills then play in Week 19, the Bengals win, and the two teams finish as the second and third seeds. Now both teams are scheduled on Wild Card Weekend, at home against teams that have had a week to rest and get players healthy, while they had to play in “Week 19.”
Where is the competitive balance in that scenario for the Bills and Bengals? You can hardly consider not playing in Week 17 a “bye” given everything those players went through on Monday night and continue to go through. They are then playing a playoff-intensity game while all the other playoff teams rest up before having to go straight into the playoffs the following week.
Yes, NFL teams are used to it, and byes are not always good, but if you offered teams a week’s rest before the playoffs, I doubt you would find many who say no.
Another scenario to consider is if the Bengals, Bills, and Chiefs all win this week. In that scenario, the Bengals will have the AFC North wrapped up, and while they could not get to the one seed, they could get to the two seed. The Bengals could get to 13-4 and match the Bills on record. The Bengals would then clinch the two seed based on the head-to-head record between the two teams.
The Bengals could also have a shot at the one seed if they win, the Chiefs lose, and the Bills win this week. If they then beat the Bills in “Week 19,” the three teams would be tied at 13-4. The Bengals would then have the head-to-head advantage over both the Chiefs and Bills, giving them the one seed, the Bills would be the two seed, with the Chiefs the three seed.
Quite simply, there is no perfect outcome here. Whatever the NFL decides to do will have unintended but unavoidable consequences. What we do know is that a lot of thought will go into this decision from the NFL, the coaches, the players, and everyone involved in that process.
After what the Bills and Bengals players, coaches, and everyone involved in that organization went through on Monday, their best interests need to be front and center of the decision-making process rather than financial considerations or anything else along those lines.
Making the Bills and Bengals play an extra game to try and earn a bye week while other teams rest does not seem like it would be in the best interest of the players, and that is ultimately what should matter the most. No choice for the NFL is easy, but canceling the game and dealing with the competitive imbalance seems like the best of a bunch of bad options.