The NFL is now reaching the point where cancelling Week 17’s game between the Bills and Bengals is having a profound impact on the playoffs. There’s no question that abandoning the game and narrowing the focus on Damar Hamlin’s health was the correct move — even if the NFL didn’t want to do it, but had their hand forced by the bravery of the Bills and Bengals who refused to play considering the circumstances.
Still, cancelling the game created problems. Hamlin is thankfully recovering, and the playoffs are rolling on — now the league is staring down the very real scenario where the AFC Championship game could be played at a neutral site. Once a possibility is now a looming reality, and it’s causing acrimony on many fronts. Let’s dive into how this happened, what could occur as a result of the cancelled game, and whether playing at a neutral site could provide a benefit to one of the teams playing.
How playoff sites are normally chosen
This marks the third year since the NFL expanded the playoffs and removed the two-team bye system at the top of the rankings. To compensate the bracket is re-seeded after each round, with the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds retaining home field advantage until they would meet in the championship game, at which point the No. 1 seed would have the edge.
This also means that the No. 2 seed would keep home field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl, should the No. 1 seed be eliminated prior to the conference championship.
There is a multi-tiered tiebreaker system to break deadlocks in the event two teams enter the playoffs with the same overall record. There are 11 potential tiebreaker scenarios, starting simply with total wins against the conference, and becoming more granular until a coin toss is used to settle a tiebreaker — should teams somehow be locked after 10 steps.
Why Bills vs. Bengals was the perfect storm
When Buffalo traveled to Cincinnati in Week 17 it was a game that had ranging implications for the playoffs. It was the No. 2 seed vs. the No. 3 seed, but beyond that the result of the game could have completely shifted the course of the playoffs.
If the Bills won ...
They would have finished the season at 14-3, with 10 wins against the AFC. This would have tied them with the Chiefs, but Buffalo owned the tiebreaker over Kansas City. The Chiefs won nine game against the AFC, which is the No. 1 tiebreaker — meaning the Bills would have had home field advantage in the playoffs, and the AFC Championship Game would be played in Buffalo.
If the Bengals won ...
Nothing would have changed in regards to playoff seeding. It would have tied the Bills and Bengals at 13-4 to close the season, with both teams being locked at 9 wins against the AFC. This would move to the second tiebreaker, division wins, which Buffalo would have broken by winning four games against the AFC East vs. Cincinnati’s three wins against the AFC North.
When the game between these two was cancelled it legitimate threw doubt on the entire playoff seeding process. It was obviously unfair to hand Kansas City home field advantage based on the circumstances, meaning the neutral site option had to come into play.
The Bills and Chiefs have the biggest home field advantages in the AFC
Home field means a lot to both of these teams. Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium is known for its incredible crowd noise. In 2022 the Chiefs had a 7-1 record at home, with their sole loss coming at the hands of Buffalo in a 24-20 slugfest in Week 6.
Meanwhile, Buffalo is equally fertile ground for the Bills. In 2022 the team went 7-2 at home, with its losses being at the hands of the surging Vikings in overtime, and a shock loss to the Jets, who at the time were one of the scarier teams in the NFL. In both cases the Bills only lost by three points, and the noise inside Highmark Stadium is only matched by brutal January weather which gives the Bills a major advantage, particularly against pass-heavy teams that can’t handle the wind.
This isn’t set in stone yet — and Joe Mixon has ZERO reason to be angry about this
It’s important to note that the idea of the neutral site game only happens if the Chiefs AND Bills win this weekend. If only Kansas City wins then the AFC Championship will be played in KC, and if only the Bills win then it’ll be in Buffalo.
Bengals running back Joe Mixon is upset that tickets are being sold in advance for a Bills vs. Chiefs AFC Championship.
“To be honest, it’s disrespectful, but we’re not worried about that sh**,” the running back said on Wednesday. ”We got a game to play on Sunday right? Like I said we are gonna go out there on Sunday and we’re gonna do what the hell we got to do to come back with that W. And then we’re going to see what they’re talking about.”
It should be noted that advance tickets are being sold for a Bengals AFC Championship game too, in the event that the Chiefs AND Bills lose, which would cause Cincinnati to host Jacksonville. Presales like this happen all the time.
Where is the game being played, and does anyone have an advantage
Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta will host a potential AFC Championship between the Bills and Chiefs, and the NFL is already giddy with the amount of hype it’s receiving.
Outside of conspiracy theories about unfair ticket releases to fans, there doesn’t really seem to be any clear advantages for either team. Atlanta is about as equidistant as you can get between Buffalo and Kansas City, and it’s unclear which team has a larger national following — though anecdotally it feels like there may be more interest in the Chiefs.
Could this foreshadow something bigger?
The NFL’s glee at a neutral site selling tickets so quickly is something to watch. It’s unclear whether owners would be open to moving to neutral sites for the AFC and NFC Championship games, and it’s probably premature to discuss it — but you best believe the league would love to have two more mini Super Bowl sized games where they can hand-pick the largest markets, with the biggest stadiums to host the games.
This isn’t something to be concerned about right now, just something to watch — especially considering the NFL is bragging about how great ticket sales are for Atlanta.