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NFL's Steelers-Ravens game highlights need for a Covid playoff bubble

How bad could it be without a bubble? Just imagine a Covid-19 outbreak on the eve of the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) passes under pressure in the first half of the game on Dec. 2, 2020, in Pittsburgh.Gene J. Puskar / AP

Wednesday afternoon’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers has already been postponed three times because of a Covid-19 outbreak on the Ravens that has sidelined several Ravens stars, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, the National Football League’s reigning MVP.

The game, originally set for a primetime Thanksgiving slot, has been forced into an awkward afternoon time slot to avoid NBC's 88th Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony Wednesday night. It's a telling detail. Indeed, with five weeks left until the playoff, the NFL’s season could still careen off the rails. So while it won’t be fun for anyone, but the NFL’s best option right now is to follow the lead of other leagues and stage the 2020 playoffs with its teams and essential personnel inside bubbles.

Indeed, with five weeks left until the playoff, the NFL’s season could still careen off the rails.

NFL players pride themselves on physical toughness — sometimes taking painkilling drugs to stay in games. The show must go on. And yet, with so many Covid-19 cases this season, it’s no sure thing the players will get through this season intact. This is a virus that can't be played through.

While perhaps unpleasant socially and emotionally, playoff bubbles are the best way to ensure that the NFL has well-contested playoff games, and safe players. The NFL Players Association would have to approve the measure. But considering how well bubbles worked in other sports this year, the union should not object.

Surely, the NFL hopes the Ravens-Steelers rematch won’t become a farce like the Denver Broncos’ 31-3 loss Sunday to the New Orleans Saints. Covid-19 blitzed all four mediocre quarterbacks on the Broncos’ roster, rendering them unable to play. Kendall Hinton, a former college quarterback at Wake Forest, filled in for Denver at the eleventh hour and played as poorly as expected.

Since there were no fans in Denver’s stadium, another consequence of the pandemic, the NFL did not have to offer rebates for an inferior product. But nobody wants to see an NFL team without a real quarterback. And nobody should want to see the Ravens without Jackson. Since the NFL has not canceled any games this season, it needs to make sure the games they put on are watchable.

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Either way, football fans can expect more postponements in the next five weeks. Pittsburgh’s next game against Washington, originally set for Sunday afternoon, has been moved to Monday night. And Baltimore’s next game against the Dallas Cowboys has been shifted to Tuesday night; it had been set for this Thursday. The integrity of the playoffs will be compromised if such scheduling on the fly continues.

For the benefit of people who don’t watch football for the gambling or the fantasy leagues, the NFL must try to ensure that its best players won’t miss games because of the virus. More fiascos like Broncos-Saints and fans could lose interest.

Drew Lock, one of the Broncos’ sidelined quarterbacks, apologized after the game on Sunday for not wearing a mask, which almost certainly contributed to the spread. Mistakes like that must not be repeated.

The lack of a coherent policy for dealing with Covid-19 has rendered the league as overwhelmed as much of America. As of Dec. 1, more than 13 million Americans have contracted the coronavirus, and more than 250,000 have died. Clearly, the NFL can’t stop the virus. It can only hope to contain it long enough to rake in its $5 billion annual broadcast haul from NBC, CBS, ESPN and Fox and streaming service Amazon Prime. Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled for Feb. 7, 2021, in Tampa, Florida, is expected to net CBS more than $5 million for every 30-second commercial sold. And the Super Bowl consistently delivers a higher TV rating each year than any other program.

Canceled games mean less money. That’s why the NFL postpones games instead. But that’s not financially feasible, or acceptable to fans, during the playoffs. The NFL needs to get its bubble.

Cancelled games mean less money. That’s why the NFL postpones games instead. But that’s not financially feasible, or acceptable to fans, during the playoffs.

The National Basketball Association bubble in Orlando cost the league more than $150 million to operate and included daily testing for everyone, from the original 22 teams to the final two, a championship for LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, and zero positive tests.

Major League Baseball, after an abbreviated 60-game season, created playoff bubbles in California and Texas and staged a World Series won by the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, some people did test positive, including Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.

The Women’s National Basketball Association bubbled up in Bradenton, Florida. Commissioner Cathy Englebert reported zero positive tests. The Seattle Storm took home the title.

The National Hockey League held its 24-team restart inside bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. The final statistics: 33,174 tests, one Stanley Cup for the Tampa Bay Lightning and no positive cases.

And the Houston Dash won the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup in a bubble in Herriman, Utah, with no positive cases among the eight teams.

The blueprint already exists. The NFL needs to only follow it.

Come playoff time, the NFL could designate two states as bubble sites — for example, Arizona for the AFC playoffs, Florida for the NFC playoffs. (Those states would be selected because of favorable weather, not because they have contained the spread of Covid-19.)

Baseball allowed about 11,000 fans to attend each World Series game at 40,518-seat Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and there were no complications. The NFL could even possibly allow fans at 25 percent capacity.

Starting this week, we may be able to see a little about about how well an NFL bubble can work. The San Francisco 49ers will be the unintended test subjects.

The 49ers are relocating to Glendale, Arizona, for at least the next three weeks because Santa Clara County, alarmed by a rise in coronavirus cases, has banned all contact sports. That means the 49ers will play “home” games on Dec. 7 and 13 at the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium. The defending NFC champions will be secluded from family and loved ones — at an undisclosed location, perhaps closer to cacti than nightlife.

But if the 49ers — already plagued by injuries to key players in a heretofore disappointing season— mask up and follow other safety protocols during the week, they may actually produce a better quality of football and show this season’s playoff teams that life inside a bubble could well be their salvation.

How bad could it be without a playoff bubble? Just imagine a Covid-19 outbreak on the eve of the Super Bowl, leading to a lengthy postponement of the season’s biggest game. That’s something nobody, least of all the NFL, should ever want to see.