Explaining the NFL’s options for Bills vs. Bengals, from no-contest cancellation to rescheduled Week 19

By | January 5, 2023

The Bills vs. Bengals game was supposed to be the “Monday Night Football” game of the year in Week 17. The two teams were jockeying for playoff positioning and squaring off in a potential postseason preview from two of the best teams in the AFC.

However, the contest quickly turned into a nightmare when Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field. He had to be given CPR and was resuscitated with an AED before being taken away by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

The game was suspended and later postponed after Hamlin’s collapse, a move that Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor called “the solution that we needed to get to.”

The decision was certainly the right one, but it has created a scramble in the league office to decide what to do about the rest of its 2022 regular-season schedule.

Specifically, the NFL needs to decide what to do about the Bengals vs. Bills game. The league had not done so as of Thursday morning and is facing a time crunch with Week 18 play just days away.

“Obviously we’re going to have to make a decision on that in the coming days, which we will,” NFL VP Jeff Miller said in a Zoom call on Wednesday, per CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones. “But there’s a lot of considerations in place there and a lot of people that we want to consult with — including the clubs involved — before that decision is final.”

MORE: Latest updates on Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who remains in critical condition but is progressing

The NFL’s decision will be a complex one and it will have a ripple effect on the AFC playoff picture. Below is a look at just how much of an impact that might be and the many options the league has regarding its completion or cancellation.

NFL’s options for Bills vs. Bengals game

At this point, any decision about the Bills vs. Bengals game lies in the hands of commissioner Roger Goodell. This is outlined in the league’s “Emergencies and Unfair Acts provisions in the Policy Manual for Member Clubs: Game Operations,” per Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports.

“Authority to cancel, postpone, or terminate games is vested solely in the Commissioner,” the manual reads.

Goodell has a handful of options, but some seem far more likely than others given the suspended game’s proximity to the NFL playoffs.

Below is a breakdown of the choices Goodell could make regarding the Cincinnati-Buffalo “Monday Night Football” contest.

MORE: Latest updates on whether Bills vs. Bengals game will be played

Reschedule the game

This would be the NFL’s preferred route under normal circumstances. The league bent over backward during the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season to play all of its regular-season games and was able to do so by making numerous tweaks to its schedule.

However, it will be more difficult to move the Bills vs. Bengals game to another date. Why? Because the league doesn’t have time to squeeze it into the schedule with the playoffs rapidly approaching.

The NFL policy manual outlines that if a suspended or postponed game cannot be played within two days of its original postponement, the commissioner must “attempt to schedule it on the Wednesday of the next calendar week. The Commissioner will keep in mind the potential for competitive inequities if one or both of the involved clubs has already been scheduled for a game close to the Wednesday of that week (for example, a Monday or Thursday game).”

Had this occurred earlier in the season, the NFL could have potentially finagled its schedule to allow this sort of solution.

However, competitive inequities would certainly arise if the Bengals and Bills had to play just days after Week 18. Each team is headed to the playoffs, and they would then be required to play three games within a seven-to-nine-day period. That would not only prove problematic for player safety, but it would also create the competitive inequities that the league is striving to avoid.

A greater schedule shift is something that has been bandied about as a possibility as well. That would involve shifting the structure of the NFL’s postseason, as ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio’s brought up on 93.7 The Fan.

Once again though, that could create competitive inequities for the better-rested teams in the postseason, as every AFC team but the Bills and Bengals would get a bye week entering the playoffs. So, while the NFL would almost certainly love to play the marquee “Monday Night Football” matchup, it looks like it will be difficult to do so.

MORE: Damar Hamlin’s charity receives millions in donations after Bills-Bengals postponement

Roger Goodell declares a winner

So, what are the options if the Bengals-Bills game can’t be played? There are a few outlined in the NFL’s manual for emergency situations outlines.

This represents the least likely option. Goodell can declare a winner of a suspended contest, but the NFL must be able “to project that [the game’s] resumption would not change its ultimate result.”

It’s hard to imagine that being a reasonable conclusion. The Bengals were winning 7-3 when Hamlin went down, but that occurred in the first quarter. As such, it’s impossible to project that Cincinnati would have definitively held onto the lead through the fourth quarter, even if they had the early advantage.

Roger Goodell declares a tie

This is a much more reasonable option than the one above. Again, though the Bengals had an early lead, it is impossible to project whether they would have held on to win the game.

A tie would do two things for the NFL. It would put an official result next to the name and make the AFC playoff picture and standings a bit easier to navigate, as all teams would be credited with the same number of games played.

Of course, this decision is not without its drawbacks, as it would hand the AFC North title to the Bengals while denying them a chance to fight for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Too, the Bills would go from having the inside track to the AFC No. 1 seed to trailing the Chiefs, who could clinch that seed with a win on Saturday against the Raiders.

Still, it’s possible that the NFL would prefer to have each team credited with 17 games played, so this can’t be ruled out. And the league’s final alternative is similar to declaring a tie anyway.

MORE: Ryan Clark praised for “empathy and humanity” in coverage of Damar Hamlin’s collapse

No-contest cancellation

This qualifies as the most likely option for the NFL as it tries to determine what to do about the Bills vs. Bengals game. A no-contest would certainly impact the AFC playoff picture in a similar way to a tie, but it wouldn’t place a tie — which some may consider an arbitrary result — within the standings.

Instead, teams would have to be evaluated based on their winning percentage, as outlined by the NFL’s emergency manual.

If a game is canceled, a team’s standing in its division or in its conference (e.g. qualifying as a wild card in the playoffs or position in playoff seeding) shall be determined on the basis of its final record.

A no-contest would still alter the impact of some Week 18 games in a similar way to a tie. The Chiefs would still be able to clinch the No. 1 seed with a win while the Bengals would clinch the AFC North, as they’d be guaranteed a better winning percentage than the Ravens.

Still, this seems like the least disruptive option for the NFL; and it is within Goodell’s power to declare it the result.

The question now is just about when the NFL will make a decision about this game. Still, the longer it is drawn out, the less likely it seems to be played.