For possible neutral-site AFC Championship, much needs to be determined
The NFL’s decision to embrace the possibility of a neutral site for the AFC Championship as one of the practical remedies to the cancellation of Bills-Bengals raises plenty of questions that have not yet been answered.
One answer comes today, when the Bills play the Patriots. If Buffalo loses, there will be no neutral-site game. The Chiefs will be the No. 1 seed, with all associated benefits and privileges. If Buffalo wins, the NFL will need to have plans ready for a neutral-site game, in the event both the Bills and Chiefs qualify for the AFC Championship.
The resolution adopted by the owners on Friday, with 25 voting yes and the rest either opposing it or abstaining, gives Commissioner Roger Goodell full discretion to select the neutral site. Many assume it will be a place between Buffalo and Kansas City, but that’s not a given. Indianapolis -- an ideal, almost equidistant location between the two cities -- has passed on the opportunity.
The challenge for the league will be to find a venue that will definitely be available in the event that both Buffalo and Kansas City emerge from the AFC scrum as the final two teams. And, in theory, that venue could be anywhere.
It becomes, frankly, a benefit that the Commissioner can dangle to an owner as part of a broader bargain, past or future. Surely, some owners will lobby for the right to host the game.
Would it be L.A.? Las Vegas? Heck, would it be London? The only stadiums that would be off the table (other than the ones that have already passed) would be the ones that could, in theory, be in use that day -- Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Minnesota, for example.
The NFL could identify multiple possibilities for the game, based on how the playoffs play out. In every given year, we don’t know where the conference championship games will be played until the divisional-round games have ended. The league could have two or three ready to go (Jerry Jones surely would fall all over himself to host the game), with a decision coming as soon as it becomes official that the Bills will meet the Chiefs.
Beyond picking a location, the league has informed PFT that various issues regarding the issuance of tickets -- will they be split between the fan bases? will Chiefs fans have dibs? -- has yet to be determined.
It would be interesting to know which outcome the league office is secretly rooting for. If Buffalo loses, the problem is permanently solved. But does the league secretly hope that this plot twist to the ultimate reality show lingers through the wild-card round and, if Buffalo vanquishes the No. 7 seed in the AFC, to the divisional round?
Would the league like to experiment with a neutral-site conference championship game, with an eye toward making the games neutral-site contests every year? An AFC stadium hosts the NFC game, an NFC stadium hosts the AFC game, and off we go -- with the league squeezing the same kinds of concessions from host cities that it gets when it bestows a Super Bowl.
Regardless, there’s plenty to be figured out, if there’s going to be a neutral-site AFC title game. Absent a loss by the Bills today, the work will continue for at least a week. If the Bills win in the wild-card round, the league will need to have its plan in place to take the AFC Championship to a place other than the stadium of the team that earned the game -- for the first time since the NFL ditched the rotation concept in the 1970s.
And, yes, the undefeated Dolphins of 1972 had to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, one week after the Immaculate Reception game.