There have been hiccups throughout this pandemic-plagued NFL campaign. But the league has pressed forward and been able to avoid season-altering scheduling catastrophes. The Covid outbreak currently engulfing the Baltimore Ravens will end that streak of good fortune.
Covid has impacted every aspect of our daily lives, and now, is coming for our sacred NFL playoff race.
The NFL isn’t presented with any good options when it comes to handling the fallout of the Ravens’ Covid flareup. After multiple players and staff members tested positive this week, the NFL pushed back Baltimore’s Thanksgiving night contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers to Sunday afternoon. Steelers players vented about the postponement on social media, because they will be deprived of much-needed extra rest, through no fault of their own.
The Steelers were forced to take an early bye in Week 4, due to a Covid outbreak with the Tennessee Titans. The Titans were fined $350,000 for flouting protocol. As a result, Steelers-Titans was pushed to Week 7. “First the NFL takes away our bye week because another team can’t get their Covid situation together, now they take away our Thanksgiving primetime game for the same reason,” tweeted star Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster.
While the frustration among Steelers players is understandable, they’re undefeated, and slated to glide into the playoffs — despite their early bye. In other words, competitive balance hasn’t been affected.
But that could end with a postponement that pushes Steelers-Ravens to a Week 18. If the game is still played Sunday, the Ravens will take to the field woefully undermanned, with approximately a dozen players testing positive, including QB Lamar Jackson.
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Running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins would also be sidelined due to Covid, leaving Gus Edwards as the only back on their roster who’s carried the ball this season. For a running-based team, that would be disastrous, and it couldn’t come at a worse time.
The next week could decide Baltimore’s season. The 6-4 Ravens are out of the playoffs after dropping three of their last four games. They’ve also lost their identity. Following their loss to the Titans, Jackson said Tennessee “wanted it more.”
Proving his point, Titans receiver A.J. Brown bulldozed his way through a slew of Ravens defender on his way to scoring a pivotal late-game touchdown.
If the Ravens suit up Sunday, they’ll be forced play a pivotal Thursday night game against the Cowboys on short rest — though given Dallas’ hapless Thanksgiving performance, it may not matter. Regardless, they’ll play at least their next game without Jackson, since NFL protocol dictates players with confirmed Covid cases cannot rejoin team activities for 10 days.
That means backup Robert Griffin III will almost certainly start one of the most important games of Baltimore’s season, and possibly both of them.
It would work out best for the Ravens if their game against the Steelers is pushed to Monday or Tuesday, since that would force the NFL to reschedule their matchup with Dallas. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told ESPN Thursday they won’t be allowed to return to their facility until Monday at the earliest.
On Friday, Ravens lineman Calais Campbell, who’s also tested positive for Covid, called out NFL reporter Tom Pelissero for insinuating they should be able to play this weekend. “We just want to contain this outbreak!,” Campbell tweeted. “Speaking from experience…you don’t want to catch covid! This virus is brutal! I pray no one else has to go thru this. This is bigger than football.”
There is not a lot of sympathy out there for the Ravens, since one of their coaches reportedly failed to disclose symptoms and failed to wear a mask or tracking device. The Ravens announced they’ve disciplined the staff member in question.
But the anger directed towards Ravens players is misplaced. They didn’t act irresponsibly. It was apparently one of their strength and conditioning coaches. But due to his actions, the Ravens will be forced to play at least their next game without their starting QB and the reigning MVP — just in time for their season to be on the line.
Up until Thursday, the NFL had not postponed any games since Week 5, though the league probably should’ve pushed back San Francisco’s Week 9 bout with the Green Bay Packers. The 49ers were forced to play without most of their receiving corps, as Kendrick Bourne, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel were all on the Covid list.
With that in mind, the 49ers are the ones who should be the most upset if Ravens-Steelers is delayed. But they’re mediocre and out of the NFC playoffs, so their plight largely goes unnoticed.
As we’ve seen for 10 months, the virus does not discriminate, and that means it can come for good teams, too. The 7-3 Cleveland Browns were operating remotely Thursday due to positive Covid tests, and stalwart Arizona Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald was placed on the Covid list as well.
The Browns are scheduled to play at Jacksonville, and the Cardinals play Sunday at New England.
Forfeits are conceivably out of the question, since players would be robbed of game checks. Also, it would be ill-advised for the league office to force the Ravens to take a loss, and further doom their fleeting playoff hopes. Once again, it would be punishing the players for the behavior of one of their coaches.
However the NFL proceeds, there will be unhappy parties, and the league’s actions will have some sort of impact on the AFC playoff race. And this week’s madness could only be the beginning of the NFL warily intervening in its playoff picture. With nearly 3,400 Covid cases being reported nationwide Nov. 25, and an expected post-Thanksgiving surge, the virus is more widespread than ever.
Through 11 weeks, the NFL has largely been able to keep up the magic, hiding empty stadiums with unique camera angles and pumping in the fake crowd noise. TV ratings have rebounded, too: “Sunday Night Football” last week drew the NFL’s largest audience for a primetime game since the season-opener.
But reality can no longer be masked. It looks like Covid will be the X-factor in this year’s playoffs. The Ravens’ fortunes have already been impacted, and now the question is, who’s next?
Source: Forbes – Business