Take a deep breath, folks: The NFL is NOT canceling the season in the wake of the ongoing Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots COVID-19 outbreaks. It won’t suspend operations for a month waiting for the nation’s pandemic news to get better (sigh, good luck with that). And “32 bubbles!” is fun to shout but ain’t happening because neither the players nor the league really wants it. But an NFL league source told us on Sunday that the league is considering adding Week 18 to the schedule as a storage facility for postponed games.
Let’s explore how Week 18 might work, and how an extra week might turn the NFL’s crisis into an opportunity to showcase some marquee matchups, as well as a chance for fans to enjoy some less guilt-inducing NFL action.
Why NFL Week 18 schedule is necessary
The NFL planned to get through Week 5 by rescheduling the Denver Broncos against the New England Patriots game for Monday evening and the Tennessee Titans versus Buffalo Bills game for Tuesday evening as outbreaks among the Titans and Patriots appeared to subside late last week. But members of both organizations tested positive on Saturday, forcing the league to scramble once again.
Broncos-Patriots has been rescheduled for Week 6, pushing the scheduled Broncos game against the Miami Dolphins for next week back indefinitely. There was no word when we went to press about the Titans-Bills game.
A league source told us on Sunday morning:
“The idea is to try to safely play games within the schedule and hold on to Week 18 for potential games that would need to be moved late in the season.”
So Week 18 is on the league’s radar. That’s all well and good, but the NFL keeps tap-dancing closer and closer to the ledge of having to cancel games. We feel that the time has come to stop worrying about the future and start taking steps to quell the immediate crisis.
How NFL Week 18 would work
First, the NFL schedules Week 18 for January 9th-10th, moving the Wild Card playoff round back one week. That would likely eliminate the bye week before the Super Bowl, which has been erased in the past (after 9/11 in the 2001 season, most notably), and is probably a bad idea during a pandemic, anyway: Let’s not send the two Super Bowl teams home for a week of potential exposures before the big game.
Next, the NFL should immediately add Titans-Bills to the Week 18 schedule so the Titans can quarantine (we said QUARANTINE, fellas, not toss the ol’ pigskin around at the local playground) and get ready for Week 6 instead of playing Whack-a-Mole with COVID positives.
The league source clarified that all rescheduled games fall within the existing broadcast contracts, so rescheduled CBS games air on CBS, FOX games on FOX, etc. Once Week 18 is on the books with one (probably) playoff-relevant Titans-Bills game slated, the league’s broadcast partners can start devising broadcasting and advertising plans.
When further outbreaks occur across the league, the NFL can first explore other options (moving bye weeks around, Monday afternoon matinées, etc.), but it can then pivot to Week 18 before getting carried away with ideas like Wednesday nooner with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the event that some team goes full Titans and needs multiple postponements, the NFL can explore cancellations or forfeits. But adding a Week 18 would minimize that problem because teams could quarantine for multiple days when the risk of an outbreak is high instead of trying to leak back into the facility a little too early to prepare for a postponed Tuesday nighter.
Would the NFLPA be open to a Week 18?
The league source stated that the NFL does not need NFLPA approval to reschedule games. Still, Patriots veterans’ immediate hostile reactions to suggestions that the team plays through the latest positive indicate that the league would benefit from the union’s partnership when creating a Week 18, if only from a public relations and player acceptance standpoint.
The NFLPA’s leadership is notoriously safety-conscious and would probably agree that an additional scheduled week in January makes more sense than catch-as-catch-can facility openings followed by Monday afternoon games involving teams that didn’t practice all week and flew into town that morning.
By season’s end, Week 18 could consist of (let’s say) six-to-10 games, many of which have playoff implications, spread across Saturday and Sunday in a manner similar to Wild Card schedules. Some of the games, like Titans-Bills, would likely be de facto playoff games.
As an added bonus for fans, we could watch and enjoy Week 18 games without thinking “gosh, playing on Tuesday at breakfast time after the starting quarterback tested positive on Saturday seems like a bad idea.” That’s the feeling we currently get when watching postponed games, and we’re sure some of you feel the same way.
What’s next for the NFL?
It feels almost inevitable that Week 18 is coming after Sunday’s developments, and the logistics are easily surmountable. So don’t be surprised if the NFL soon announces that Week 18 has been added to the schedule.
And feel free to breathe a sigh of relief when it happens. An extra week won’t cure COVID-19 or solve the NFL’s problems. But when your favorite team announces a positive result on Wednesday morning, it will be easier to speculate about a game in January then worrying about either a canceled game (bad) or the league just crossing its fingers and trying to play anyway (much, much, much worse).