The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens were supposed to be the marquee matchup of the Thanksgiving Day football games. Then the Ravens suddenly found themselves in the midst of a COVID-19 emergency as multiple players and staff tested positive for coronavirus, including reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. The game was pushed back to Sunday and the Steelers' players were rather upset about that.
The weekend brought more bad news as the Steelers find themselves attempting to contain their own COVID-19 outbreak. Adam Schefter reports Pittsburgh has had to place five members of the organization on the COVID-19 reserve list over the last two days. The Steelers-Ravens game has officially been moved to Tuesday night as the NFL tries its damndest to get this game in.
And the NFL will continue to do everything it can to hold the game this week because if it cannot, it would force the league to turn to the contingency plans they have in place. Neither the Steelers nor the Ravens have a bye week remaining on their schedule. If the game can't be played this week, there's nowhere for the NFL to put it.
Unless they enact the Week 18 plan they have in their back pocket. To refresh you, reader, the NFL will eliminate the week between the championship games and the Super Bowl if a Week 18 needs to be held in order to play games that could not be played due to a COVID-19 outbreak. So far, the outbreaks have been contained enough to play the games (whether that's smart/ethical or not is another discussion entirely) with the exception of the Titans-Steelers game earlier in the year, which was rescheduled for later in the season because both teams had bye weeks.
Now, though, the NFL has a choice to make. They could try to have the game anyway despite the current absence of several starters from both teams with more that still could test positive. If the game can't be held or the league decides it's too much of a risk, they could enact the Week 18 protocol that they have been strangely reticent to turn to. Or they could put their final contingency plan into motion: a 16-team playoff.
The worst-case scenario plan for the NFL is that if not every team can play 16 games, then they'll expand the playoff field to eight teams per conference and have a massive 16-team playoff. This is the least likely plan to be used because it's so drastic, and is probably viewed as a worst-case scenario by those in the league. If you thought all that talk about asterisks and the NBA bubble was bad, just wait until a seven-seed NFL team that wouldn't have gotten into the postseason otherwise goes on a Super Bowl run with a 9-6 regular-season record.
The NFL will do everything in their power to hold Steelers-Ravens on Tuesday. But not even this multi-billion dollar machine can make coronavirus go away. We may be approaching the breaking point for this season, and the NFL will have to decide if the illusion of a "normal" season with 16 games is worth putting the players at risk as both teams fight COVID outbreaks.