Let’s start with the good news: as of this morning, Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety who went into cardiac arrest during the Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, looks to be making steady - and extremely positive - progress in his recovery. He is officially off the ventilator, breathing on his own and speaking with his family and teammates. His mental faculties look entirely intact. This is wonderful.
There’s more good news, too. The Bengals are officially your 2022 AFC North Champions. Go ahead and start printing the t-shirts. All those preseason prognosticators who predicted doom and gloom can suck it.
Now for the bad news. And before you proverbially curb stomp me for this, I want to declare without any misunderstanding: the good news here far, far, farrrrr outweighs the bad. But still - there’s bad news.
The NFL has tossed their rule book out the window. In a case such as this, with two teams finishing the season with fewer games played than the rest of the league, the NFL rulebook clearly states that playoff seeding will be determined by winning percentage. As Zac Taylor said in his press conference today, “It’s black and white.”
And yet, the NFL competition committee implemented their own directives. If you guessed that these rules don’t exactly favor the Bengals, congratulations, you get an NFL-logo-shaped sticker.
There’s a lot of confusing language in the NFL’s ruling but it essentially boils down to this:
If the Bengals lose to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 18, the potential wild card matchup between the Bengals and Ravens will be hosted by the team that wins a coin flip
If the Bills and Kansas City Chiefs both win in Week 18, and they meet in the AFC Championship, the game will be held at a neutral site
If the Bills and Bengals win while the Chiefs lose in Week 18, and the Bengals and Bills meet in the AFC Championship, the game will be held in Buffalo and not at a neutral site
Somebody help! My head is spinning. Make it make sense!
Sadly, it doesn’t, and it never will. No matter how you slice it, the Bengals got the bottom part of the banana that nobody ever eats. Yes, the potential coin flip playoff game with the Ravens can be avoided if the Bengals simply win this weekend, but this ruling prevents the Bengals from controlling their own destiny - something that was (potentially) available to them before the Monday Night game.
Had the Bengals beaten the Bills on Monday Night (and they were leading 7 - 3 at the time of the postponement), they would have leapt the Bills in the standings. They would be playing this week with the chance to clinch the #1 seed. All they needed was a Kansas City slip-up against the Las Vegas Raiders. In this hypothetical scenario, the Bengals would have finished the year with the same record as the Bills and Chiefs, and because they would have wins against both teams on their resume, they’d clinch the coveted first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Today, though, that opportunity was taken away. The Bengals cannot secure home-field advantage - no way, no how. It’s a shame. After starting 4 - 4 on the season, the Bengals have ripped off seven wins in a row to put themselves in this position. Now, with the stroke of a pen, their loftiest goals have been stripped away.
The Bengals are, in a word, pissed. Zac Taylor is pissed. Mike Brown, the Bengals owner, is pissed. The front office is pissed. The players are pissed. The city of Cincinnati is pissed - and we have every right to be.
That said, this should be something we fume about for approximately sixty seconds. If you remember, last year the Bengals only had home-field advantage in one game in the playoffs - during their opening round matchup against the Raiders. If the Bengals beat the Ravens this Sunday (and they should, given the Ravens superstar QB Lamar Jackson is not expected to play), they’ll get that home playoff game for round one. From there, it’s business as usual.
It’s also important to consider this ruling from the NFL’s perspective. No compromise was going to please everyone. Sure, Buffalo gets a break, but who cares? And even more, any effect this has on the Bengals postseason chances is negligible anyway.
The Bengals didn’t need home field advantage to reach the Super Bowl last year, and they won’t need it this year, either. In fact, all these factors might be a positive. It’s hard to imagine this team needing more motivation but the NFL seemingly thought it might be nice to take a massive dump all over them. Motivation will not be hard to come by these days.
But still, it’s important to remember why all these changes are happening. A young man nearly lost his life on Monday night. No matter what, any changes to the playoff format or seeding was going to create problems. Someone was going to be mad. It might as well be the Bengals, right?
That’s why, at the end of the day, I’m really not too concerned about all this. Sure, the Bengals got the short end of the stick, but what else is new? I could make an argument that this is a good thing. Bring ‘em on. The Bengals will play you anywhere, anytime. Our place, your place, doesn’t matter.
If we’ve learned anything over the past two years, it’s that this Bengals team is incredibly resilient. They aren’t going to blink if they end up playing in Baltimore in the first round. They won’t mind going to Kansas City or to Buffalo. They’ll probably relish the opportunity. So don’t be mad about the new playoff format, just be glad that the Bengals are in it. I promise you, no team in the AFC is going to be excited about playing the Bengals, no matter where it is.