NFL owners have approved changes to the AFC play-off structure after the game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills was cancelled.
The match between the Bengals and the Bills was suspended after Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in Ohio.
Hamlin, 24 remains in hospital after he suffered cardiac arrest during Monday’s penultimate regular-season game.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said the agreed plan was designed to “mitigate certain competitive effects”.
The NFL had been concerned about “potential competitive inequities” in the play-offs as a team’s record determines who has home advantage.
The Bills and Bengals will have their post-season positions determined by their winning percentage over their completed 16 games – instead of the full 17 – after the final round of games take place this weekend.
The proposals, approved by NFL owners on Friday, could mean the Cincinnati Bengals have the site of their wildcard play-off game decided by a coin toss.
That situation would occur if the Baltimore Ravens beat Cincinnati, and both teams are scheduled to play against one another in a wildcard game the next weekend.
“As we considered the football schedule, our principles have been to limit disruption across the league and minimise competitive inequities,” said NFL commissioner Goodell.
“I recognise that there is no perfect solution. The proposal we are asking the ownership to consider, however, addresses the most significant potential equitable issues created by the difficult, but necessary, decision not to play the game under these extraordinary circumstances.”
The Bengals have won the AFC North because of their superior winning percentage – regardless of Sunday’s result against the Ravens.
But they argue the league has ignored existing rules that state the win-loss record determines play-off position in the event of a cancellation.
“There’s several instances this season where the club is fined or people in our building are fined and we are being told to follow the rules,” said Bengals coach Zac Taylor.
“We point out the rules and you are told, ‘We are going to change that’. I don’t want to hear about fair and equitable when that is the case.”
The AFC Championship game could be played at a neutral site if the home team ordinarily would have been settled by the result of the cancelled game between the Bengals and Bills.
That situation could occur if:
- Buffalo (12-3) and Kansas City (13-3) both win or tie in week 18 and both teams advance to the title game
- Buffalo (12-3) and Kansas City (13-3) both lose, and Cincinnati (11-4) also loses or ties in week 18, and Buffalo and Kansas City advance to the title game
- Buffalo (12-3) and Kansas City (13-3) both lose, and Cincinnati (11-4) wins, the the title game is either Bills-Chiefs or Bengals-Chiefs
“This has been a very difficult week,” Goodell said.
“We continue to focus on the recovery of Damar Hamlin and are encouraged by the improvements in his condition as well as the tremendous outpouring of support and care for Damar and his family from across the country.
“We are also incredibly appreciative of the amazing work of the medical personnel and commend each and every one of them.”
Hamlin tributes planned at week-18 games
Tributes are planned for Hamlin during the final weekend of the regular NFL season.
The Bills safety, who had to have his heartbeat restored on the field, has had his breathing tube removed and is now able to talk.
All clubs will be allowed to outline Hamlin’s jersey number ‘3’ on each 30-yard line of the field in either Buffalo Bills red or blue.
During warm-ups, players will also will have the option to wear black T-shirts displaying the words ‘Love for Damar 3’.
The Bills will wear number ‘3’ patches on their jerseys when they host the New England Patriots on Sunday.
“It says a lot about our league. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said of the planned displays of support.
Beane added: “We go into battle but in the end, life is the number one battle. To see that unity is unheard of, but I think it sheds a great light on the NFL. The NFL is truly a family.”
Donations to a toy drive launched in 2020 by Hamlin have soared after he collapsed on the field during Monday’s game.