The Coronavirus pandemic continues to rear its ugly head and impact the 2020 NFL season. While the New England Patriots’ upcoming game against the Arizona Cardinals will take place without wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who reportedly tested positive earlier this week, another game is putting enormous pressure on the NFL: the Baltimore Ravens’ matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers is in serious danger yet again.
The game was already moved out of Thanksgiving’s primetime slot because of a series of positive Covid-19 cases within the Ravens organization. The situation is not getting any better, though, with Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson also joining the group on Thursday: the reigning league MVP is one of four players and one staff member who tested positive that day, bringing the total number up to at least 14 known cases.
Given the outbreak and the fact that the Ravens will not return to their facility before Monday, according to head coach John Harbaugh, the NFL is now facing another scheduling challenge — not unlike the one it had to work through when the Patriots had an outbreak in early October. Back then, two games had to be moved with the team’s bye being used to help calm the situation a bit.
That is not possible in this case, though, as both the Ravens and the Steelers have already had their weekends off. So, what can the NFL do? There are four basic scenarios:
1.) Leave the the game this week: Two days after Cam Newton was confirmed positive, the Patriots had to travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs anyway — competitive fairness be damned. Accordingly, and to at least ensure as level a playing field as possible for teams with Coronavirus outbreaks, the NFL could very well just leave the game this week even if that means Baltimore will have to play without a sizable portion of its starting lineup. The team not returning until Monday is a problem, but the game could be moved one day.
2.) Try rescheduling to another week: Given that neither team has a bye available, just skipping this week is a no-go without adding another week of regular season action. Rescheduling it, however, is immensely difficult without forcing some tough situations onto both teams. While having both teams play their respective Week 13 games on Thursday — Baltimore would play that day anyway — and adding the game either on Monday or Tuesday the following week would make theoretical sense, it is hard to pull off practically given the short turnarounds involved. A move from Monday to Tuesday this upcoming week might also be a scenario.
3.) Add Week 18: The NFL’s ownership meeting decided that adding an 18th week of regular season action could happen if more games, and games with serious playoff implications such as this one, are impacted by Covid-19. While not the preferred outcome among league leadership, it might be the most elegant way to handle this situation and set itself up for any potential future reschedulings. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds: a Week 18 might create a bye for a considerable portion of playoff teams, as well as a potential two-week break for the top seeds; it also would eliminate the free weekend between the championship round and Super Bowl.
4.) Force Baltimore to forfeit: This may be controversial, but the NFL could very well decide to just give the “L” to the Ravens and cancel the game. Why? Because Baltimore strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders reportedly breached Coronavirus protocols, leading to the outbreak. Forcing a team to forfeit and possibly miss the playoffs as a result would be harsh, but the circumstances might justify such a punishment. Once again, however, the situation is not as easy as it sounds because the NFLPA would likely contest such a move: players do not get paid for games that are being canceled.
As can be seen, the NFL is in no easy position when it comes to the game. What could therefore be done? Given the league’s opposition to a Week 18 and the scheduling difficulties it would face by moving the game again, it seems Options 1 and 4 are the most likely: either you just play the game — maybe not on Sunday but on one of the following two days — or you work out a way to have Baltimore forfeit and still get players paid.
Would either case be fair to the Ravens and especially the Steelers, who of no fault of their own have been dragged into this situation not once but twice? Certainly not, but that is the nature of the 2020 season in the NFL. The Patriots have experienced this first-hand.