ATLANTA (AP) — If Buffalo and Kansas City both reach the AFC championship game, they'll head to Atlanta, of all places, to compete for a spot in the Super Bowl.
The neutral site is just a one-off for now, the hasty solution to a crucial game being called off in the next-to-last week of the regular season after Damar Hamlin's frightening collapse on the field.
Hamlin, thankfully, is on the road to recovery.
Now, one can't help but wonder if the NFL, in a never-ending quest to increase its wealth and raise an already towering profile, could use this as a test run for staging conference title games at predetermined sites — just like it does with the Super Bowl.
The owners are surely intrigued by the thought of two mini-Super Bowls before the Super Bowl.
Don't brush off this idea, which has been bandied about before — most notably by the late Lamar Hunt, longtime owner of the Chiefs, whose proposal in the 1990s was rebuffed by his fellow owners.
“He was a big-event guy. He loved big events,” remembered Bob Moore, the team's historian and former media relations director. “He thought a warm-weather, indoor location somewhere would be preferable" to decide which two teams went to the Super Bowl.
Not surprisingly, the players seem against the idea.
They believe the team that posts the best record in each conference deserves to play at home at least until the Super Bowl — with all the advantages that entails, from fan support to a familiar stadium surface to potentially inclement weather they're used to playing in.
“It's only right to reward the No. 1 seed from a long season to be able have home-field advantage through the playoffs,” Bills safety Micah Hyde said Friday.
But player sentiments are unlikely to carry a whole lot of weight.
This will come down to money, and whether the owners think they can make more of it with conference title games being held at neutral stadiums.
In all likelihood, they can.
“Obviously, the NFL is going to love that, because they’re able to pick and choose more stadiums to play in, revenue," Hyde said. “It would make sense for them.”
This season's potential neutral location for the AFC title was mandated by the league after Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a Bills-Bengals game that would've had a major impact on playoff seeding.
Buffalo had a shot at gaining the top seed — and home-field advantage — by beating Cincinnati. Instead, the Bills (13-3) wound up playing one less game than Kansas City (14-3) and settled for the No. 2 seed.
Kansas City does get the advantage of being off this weekend, while Buffalo is set to host Miami in a wild-card game. But if the Bills win that one, and both Buffalo and the Chiefs win at home in the divisional round, then Atlanta would host the AFC title game on Jan. 29.
Whether that happens or not, look for the league to take a serious look at a permanent change to the playoff format.
It's already done that way at the college level, where the semifinals are rotated among six major bowls and the championship game is held at a site selected years earlier. And when the college playoff expands to 12 teams for the 2024 season, the quarterfinals, semifinals and title game will be held at sites that have already been selected.
Just as it does with the Super Bowl, the NFL could pick the hosts of its conference championship games years in advance. And, unlike the final game of the season, the league could largely ensure a true neutral site, with little chance of teams playing in their own stadium as happened at the last two Super Bowls.
An AFC city would be picked for NFC title game. An NFC city would be chosen for the AFC title game.
There are certainly no shortage of candidates.
On the NFC side, there are domed stadiums in Atlanta, New Orleans, Arizona and Dallas, which also have more favorable winter climates. Detroit and Minnesota are bitterly cold at this time of year but have previously hosted Super Bowls in their domed stadiums. The weather isn't a factor for Tampa Bay, which has hosted multiple Super Bowls in its outdoor stadium. Carolina and San Francisco also have outdoor facilities, with geography that makes them potential contenders.
There are fewer options in the AFC but more than enough to make it work. Las Vegas, Houston and Indianapolis all have domed stadiums, and Nashville is planning to build one for the Tennessee Titans. Balmy Miami is a hugely popular stop on the Super Bowl circuit and would fit right in for an NFC title game. Jacksonville is generally mild in the winter and, as a smaller city that seems unlikely to land another Super Bowl, would undoubtedly work much better as a conference championship site.
We left out one of the most appealing locations of all, SoFi Stadium in the Los Angeles area, the host of last season's Super Bowl and site just this week of the college football national championship game.
The NFL would undoubtedly want Los Angeles in the conference championship mix as well, though that would run the risk of either the NFC Rams or AFC Chargers — who share the futuristic facility — getting a home game in the conference championship round. The impact of a local crowd, though, could be lessened by the way the tickets are distributed.
As with the Super Bowl, a neutral site would provide plenty of time for pregame events in the host city, such as concerts and parties and media spectacles that can't be done on just a week's notice with the current system.
“I think they should keep it like it is,” said defensive end Brandon Graham of the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFC's top seed. But, he quickly added with a dose of realism, “It's all about the money anyway."
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow in Buffalo and Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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