The Bengals crushed the NFL’s hopes of a neutral-site AFC Championship Game in Atlanta
Officially, the NFL is not playing favorites. However, the chance of hosting a conference championship game at a neutral location must have been attractive to the league office.
The plan of moving that game to Georgia was put in motion in the aftermath of the Week 17 regular-season matchup between the Bills and Bengals. That game was, of course, suspended in the first quarter following the in-game medical emergency experienced by Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin.
Resuming the game that late in the season is not an option, and it was eventually called off. That created a problem for the NFL heading into the playoffs, though: Whereas 30 of the league’s 32 teams would finish the regular season with 17 games, the Bills and Bengals — two of the best teams in the AFC — would only have played 16.
Add the fact that Buffalo owned the head-to-head tiebreaker over the other candidate for the No. 1 seed, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the league had to figure something out. The solution was to count the games that were actually played, but move a potential Chiefs-Bills AFC title game to a neutral location should it happen.
Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium was chosen as that location, and fans of both teams were quick to purchase tickets — something the NFL happily announced in the week leading up to the Divisional Round of the playoffs:
With the potential for a neutral site AFC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, both clubs gave Season Ticket Members who previously opted-in to purchase AFC Championship Game tickets in Buffalo or Kansas City priority access to purchase tickets at a preferred rate.
More than 50,000 tickets were purchased by the clubs’ Season Ticket Members in the first 24 hours of the announcement. The ticketing plan enables Bills fans to be seated on their side of the field and Chiefs on the other.
Of course, none of that mattered if the Chiefs and/or Bills failed to actually advance to that game. Any other pairing for the AFC title game would trigger the normal rules, meaning that the game would not be played in a neutral location but rather the home stadium of the higher-seeded club.
That is precisely what happened. While the Chiefs did their job against Jacksonville on Saturday, the Bills failed to follow suit the next day. As a result, the AFC Championship on Jan. 29 will take place at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.
Naturally, not everybody was sad to see the NFL’s dreams of a neutral-site game come to an end — especially in Cincinnati.
Inside the league office, however, the opinion might be a different one. As noted by Pro Football Talk in the week leading up to the Divisional Round, after all, the “interest in neutral-site title games has become very real” within the NFL.
The NFL envies the atmosphere of major college bowl games, where a 50/50 mix of fans are decked out in team colors. It’s one thing about college football that pro football does not fully replicate …
[T]he league’s decision to tout the ticket sales becomes the foundation for the NFL to sell the possibility to owners and fans (many of whom aren’t interested in a neutral-site conference championship game) as innovative and ground-breaking and the next step in growing the game, by taking two more of its most significant events to different cites and stadiums, every year.
If the NFL really wants to introduce neutral-site championship games in the future, it will do so. Public opinion has never really mattered to the league and its owners as long as it does not negatively impact the bottom line; chances are that introducing a new playoff structure with two more such games would also not do that.
At least this year, however, the NFL will not get to experiment with an altered format. The Bengals beating the Bills spoiled those plans.