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NFL mulling Bills-Bengals options, including not finishing game or pushing schedule into bye week before Super Bowl

In the wake of the hospitalization of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during Monday Night Football, NFL vice president of operations Troy Vincent said the league is leaving all options on the table regarding the schedule. That could include pushing the conference title games into the bye week before the Super Bowl, which Vincent did not rule out during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

First and foremost, Vincent said the league has been checking in with the Bills and head coach Sean McDermott to gauge the team’s mindset and offer whatever resources are necessary as the team processes Hamlin’s battle and continues to support his family. But Vincent added that there will be a time in the near future when the league begins an attempt at shaping the remainder of the Bills' schedule, including both the postponed game against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Week 18 game against the New England Patriots. As of early Wednesday, those steps had not been taken.

“We have not had that discussion,” Vincent said of the Bills’ Week 18 game against New England, which is officially scheduled to kick off Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. “It’s really important that we just keep the pulse of the coach and the players and don’t get in front of that. We’ll allow Sean [McDermott] and his team and his staff and his players — which are the most important thing here — to guide this if we have to make that decision collectively with the club.”

The NFL is still mulling what to do about Bills-Bengals after Damar Hamlin's cardiac emergency suspended play in the first quarter Monday night. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
The NFL is still mulling what to do about Bills-Bengals after Damar Hamlin's cardiac emergency suspended play in the first quarter Monday night. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Bills returned to practice Wednesday. They took the field this morning after the team learned that Hamlin has had some “improvement” in his condition, although the exact nature of that remains private. Hamlin remains in the intensive care unit at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. The Bills’ counterpart in the Monday night game, the Bengals, will play Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

How and when the Bills and Bengals will make up Monday’s postponed game remains unresolved. There are two likely results in play: The game will not be played or recognized as a completed contest, leaving both franchises with a 16-game season and having their playoff seeding determined by win percentage; or the game will be scheduled in what amounts to a “Week 19,” in which the entire playoff schedule is pushed back one week as the Bills and Bengals finish out their season.

In that latter scenario, the playoffs would be pushed into the Super Bowl’s bye week, resulting in conference title games being played one week before the Super Bowl, rather than the current two weeks.

Part of the template for all of this has been how the league dealt with the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic season, which addressed multiple scenarios if teams couldn't complete their seasons or the Super Bowl’s bye week needed to be utilized for a scheduling emergency during the playoffs.

“The guiding principles that took us into the 2020 season with COVID [are on the table].” Vincent said. “It may not be perfect, but will allow those participating to be able to play.”