maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is still in critical but stable condition after going into cardiac arrest during a game in Cincinnati Monday night. That much we know. As of this writing, we do not know what caused the cardiac event; what his current status is; and whether or how the game will be made up, though the NFL did confirm that the Bills-Bengals game would not be resumed this week. His family released a statement earlier this morning thanking people for their support and said it would release updates once possible.
There’s a lot to say about Hamlin, but I thought former NFL player and ESPN analyst Ryan Clark put it best:
Today’s chat will begin with the events of last night before ending on a brief discussion of where the league stands heading into the final week of the regular season.
Ty Schalter (Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight contributor): As ESPN commentator Booger McFarland said during the delay, “football is entertainment,” and nothing could be further from entertainment than the horror of seeing a human being in mortal peril. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has reportedly long been “terrified” of the impact an on-field death might have on the sport — and everything we saw and felt last night is why.
maya: For as long as I’ve been a football fan, I’ve felt this tension between the violence inherent to the sport and the beauty of its strategy. Sometimes it’s easier to brush aside the qualms associated with the former and focus entirely on the latter; sometimes, even admitting to myself that I find beauty in the game is challenging.
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): I feel exactly the same way, Maya. And we’re not alone in that cognitive dissonance between enjoying the game while also worrying about the devastating injuries players are routinely subjected to.
A Morning Consult poll from October asked Americans whether head injuries — which, to be clear, are different from what Hamlin suffered Monday night — affected their interest in watching NFL games. Overall, 71 percent of U.S. adults said they had “no impact,” and although that number dropped some among younger fans, 62 percent of Gen Z fans answered in the same way. This is despite other polling which shows that the vast majority of fans do consider serious injuries to be a major problem for the league. We recognize the dangers but find ways to compartmentalize them. And I don’t know if seeing something as scary as what happened to Hamlin will change that.
maya: Violence is not unique to American football. There are plenty of other contact sports in which participants experience grievous or life-altering injuries. But there’s something about the way violence — collision, explosiveness, contact — is celebrated in American football that makes it feel like such a central part of the experience. And when something like this happens, I think it’s natural to question whether that’s something we as sports fans and members of the media are OK with condoning. It’s something that I’ve found myself thinking about more and more, especially as the league has so publicly struggled to address these concerns and the TV rights deals get bigger and bigger.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Like many people, I had a mix of strong emotions watching the broadcast. The concern on the players’ faces reflected everyone’s feelings in that moment. And then the confusion about whether or not the game would continue was worse than distracting — it seemed to trivialize the seriousness of something that so obviously took precedence over football.
neil: Definitely. ESPN continuously cutting back to Suzy Kolber when nobody really had anything to say just made things worse. (And it wasn’t her fault — she was thrust into just about the most difficult scenario in broadcasting.)
maya: That to me made Clark’s thoughts so powerful — in professional sports, where it’s so easy to take an individual story and distill it into a concept like “comeback” or “perseverance,” it sometimes takes that reminder to keep the person at the center. This is a 24-year-old man whose heart stopped beating.
Ty Schalter: I’ve often criticized the NFL for pretending the first 80 years or so of pro football didn’t happen. The NFL might prefer not to talk about starting out as a hyperviolent sideshow founded by bookies and bettors — but there are fans alive today who grew up watching 49ers linebacker Hardy Brown intentionally knock as many opponents unconscious as he could. The game really has changed; I’ve lived through generation after generation of former players complaining that it’s “soft” now compared to when they played. But it is still football. Considering Goodell’s reported fear of a moment like this one (and his having been party to an active, decades-long coverup of football brain injuries and cognitive disabilities), you’d think the league would have been better prepared to handle its decision-making and messaging in the hours following Hamlin’s collapse.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The NFL has in the past produced a video and other materials on how to address sudden cardiac arrest on the field, but whatever planning was done by the NFL ahead of last night didn’t translate to viewers as an organization oozing with competence.
neil: Right. For instance, we’re still not sure where Joe Buck got his information about the game potentially resuming after a five-minute warm-up period; NFL executive VP Troy Vincent denies that the league ever floated that possibility. But even the confusion there was indicative of just how unprepared the league and the network seemed to have been for a situation like this. It felt like there was no framework in place for an injury that goes above and beyond the typical theme-song-in-a-minor-key treatment we see all too often on broadcasts.
Ty Schalter: In the age of social media, organizations can’t just hope people calmly wait for a complete set of verified facts to be announced. More than three hours passed between Hamlin’s collapse and Vincent’s public insistence that everything was handled appropriately — and everyone in this chat knows that’s enough time not just to tweet speculation, but to report, write and publish entire articles about what we all saw happen during an NFL game.
The NFL’s statement today, which made clear that the league would not attempt to resume the game this week, is exactly the kind of proactive communication we needed earlier last night.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It seems that Buffalo believed that the game would continue. The Bills defense lined up on the field before Bengals head coach Zac Taylor walked over to the Buffalo sideline, and then both teams left the field minutes later. I’d be interested to know why the Bills felt the game would go on.
neil: It would not be out of character for the NFL — or really any sports league, for that matter — to push through something like Hamlin’s injury. There’s a long history of particularly horrible things happening in auto racing, and the governing organizations just don’t stop the race. It’s a mentality of “the show must go on” that seems to often override everything else. So in some ways, it was surprising that they didn’t ultimately choose to pick things up again quickly.
(On the other hand, our senior designer and my fellow hockey fanatic Emily Scherer reminds me that the NHL has seen a few mid-game cardiac incidents in recent seasons, causing that league to postpone games.)
maya: Given how this league has handled scary injuries in the past — I think back to Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury in 2017 — a play stoppage felt particularly unusual.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That mentality would fit with the way the Miami Dolphins handled quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s situation earlier this season, Neil. Tua was rushed to the hospital in Week 4 against the Bengals when Miami allowed him to start despite being injured the previous week (and letting him continue to play) against the Bills.
neil: I suspect many of the reasons why the league took so long to make the call to postpone the game at all simply came down to economics and logistics. It doesn’t take schedule disruptions lightly when advertisers have bought in during a specific time slot — as it was, the NFL-centric ads they kept running throughout the delay were particularly jarring — and it is true that moving or canceling the Bills-Bengals game will have cascading effects on the rest of the schedule. Both teams are set to play other teams on Sunday, so Monday’s game may have to be moved to another date — if it gets completed at all. (For what it’s worth, the Bills have arrived back in Buffalo now.)
And on a note of much more minor importance, if the league just considers Monday’s game a tie, it would very likely hand the Kansas City Chiefs the AFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while forcing both Cincinnati and Buffalo to play an extra postseason game. Obviously these are secondary concerns at the moment, and it’s unclear when either Cincinnati or Buffalo will feel comfortable playing again. But it all helps explain some of the decisions that were weighed Monday night.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t think there is any question that economics played at least some role in how things went down last night, and I’d be surprised if they don’t factor in moving forward. A Bengals-Bills tie would have other knock-on effects, as well: It would make the Bengals’ Week 18 season finale against Baltimore moot, since the Bengals would win the AFC North division championship. I’d imagine both the Bengals and the Ravens would then end up resting their key starters. In the end, that might be the best outcome for the players, if not the league’s pocketbook.
maya: Acknowledging that we’re about to turn to the playoffs, which feel so much less important than what we’ve discussed above, seems insufficient, but here we are. Regardless of what happens with this particular game, the NFL has confirmed there are no additional changes to Week 18, which is currently slated to start on Saturday and the playoffs the following week.
So we’re going to take them as they come. We were off Dec. 26 for Christmas and yesterday for New Year’s, so there’s a lot of football that’s happened.
The short of it is the playoff picture is mostly in focus. We don’t know who will hold the top seed or the final wild-card spot in either conference, and the AFC South division title remains up for grabs. But for the most part, we know who will be playing in January.
The NFC East is still pretty strong, with three teams headed to the playoffs (sorry, Washington, you’re the odd man out) — but both Dallas, on a short win streak, and Philadelphia, missing its quarterback, could win the division and the top seed. Minnesota continues to be baffling, and both Green Bay and Detroit have rebounded after tough starts to the season to take the dream of a playoff berth into Week 18. The AFC, meanwhile, has seen a pretty significant reordering. The Los Angeles Chargers are somewhat healthier and in possession of a playoff spot; the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars are going to play for the AFC South division title next week; and after giving their tortured fan bases just enough hopium to make them believe, the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are both riding five-game losing streaks.
Let’s start with the final wild-card spots. Who do you guys think is in pole position in each conference?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Our model thinks the Jaguars — who, as you noted, can also win their division outright — and the Packers are the best bets. I’m all-in on the Jags as the feel-good team of the AFC.
maya: I’m fairly confident that the Jaguars are going to win that division. Can the Titans offense survive defenses selling out the passing game to stop Derrick Henry? If you look at how Tennessee fared against strong running defenses like Philadelphia and Buffalo, the answer to me is a clear no.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah Maya, I would be very surprised — and disappointed, frankly — if Jacksonville can’t take care of business and wrap up the division against Tennessee. The probability of a Jags’ division title is quite high (75 percent), and if they lose to the Titans, they’ll need a lot of help to make the tournament.
neil: And over in the NFC, the Packers seem like the best bet of any of the teams in limbo, at least according to our model — they’re at 61 percent to make the playoffs — and this is pretty shocking given: a) where they were when we last chatted, and b) how Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been especially amazing during that stretch.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Rodgers is no Brock Purdy.
Ty Schalter: The Packers ranked 23rd leaguewide in offensive expected points added after their Week 9 loss to Detroit (-12.34); since then, they’re ranked seventh (36.26). On the other hand, though, the Lions’ offense improved from 18th in Weeks 1-9 (11.36), to No. 1 in Weeks 10-17 (76.9). But Jared Goff and company are going to be fighting a lot of ghosts (and a prime-time Lambeau crowd), not just Rodgers.
Considering the Lions have only won three road games against the Packers since 1992 — all while Matthew Stafford was quarterback — going into Lambeau and beating Rodgers seems insurmountable, especially when they also need the Seattle Seahawks to eliminate themselves against the decimated Los Angeles Rams.
maya: Anyone willing to go out on a limb for the Dolphins?
neil: Ty and I have been card-carrying Tuanon members all season, but he’s out (and so might be Teddy Bridgewater) for Week 18. The Dolphins don’t control their own destiny, and I wonder if the early-season Miami magic has just run out.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I believe the Dolphins are the favorites if the Jags lose, but Tua being hurt means that, what, the Patriots are in position to make another run? Buffalo might sit some starters…
Ty Schalter: Yeah, Neil, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel hasn’t quite been able to muster the any-quarterback-will-do magic his mentor Kyle Shanahan has in San Francisco.
maya: Astonishingly, that has opened the door for Mac Jones, with that brief assist from Bailey Zappe, to get some playoff experience.
Ty Schalter: I can’t believe we’re going to live through the roller-coaster comeback season of our lives just to have Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and either the Steelers or the Patriots right back in the playoffs.
maya: Let’s turn to the seedings. On the NFC side, four teams could theoretically finish with at least 13 wins: the Eagles, Cowboys, 49ers and Vikings. Who is in the best position to grab that bye?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m kind of shocked that the Eagles: 1) haven’t clinched their division but 2) have a 93 percent shot at a first round bye. Those things seem to not go together.
maya: The Eagles lost only one game with Jalen Hurts at quarterback; in his two starts, Gardner Minshew doubled that. Entering Week 16, Philly needed only one win (or one Dallas loss) in its final three games to clinch the NFC East and a first-round bye. Philadelphia will probably need to play its starters against New York to secure a first-round bye it needs more than probably any other team in the conference.
neil: I bet the Eagles won’t play Nate Sudfeld out of spite in that one.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles offense has sputtered badly since Week 15, accumulating -13.8 EPA, good for 23rd in the league. (And one of those games was started by Hurts.) They need some Jarrett Stidham-esque production from their backup.
Ty Schalter: This is several layers of Not The Point of this week’s chat — but Josh McDaniels/Derek Carr/Stidham might be the most fascinating on-field story in football right now.
neil: If we’d had a chat last week, I’d have said McDaniels is clearly scapegoating Carr for his own bad coaching debut in Vegas. But then Stidham sort of vindicated him? Now I don’t know what to think.
Ty Schalter: Anyway, this is going to be a fascinating iteration of the rest-your-starters debate. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni was probably right to assume they could win two out of these three games running at less than full throttle, and no amount of regular-season wins will matter if Hurts isn’t healthy for the playoffs. But will they be able to rev it up enough this week to earn the bye? And then, if they do, will they be able to take a week off without slowing down again?
maya: The only other NFC team our model gives more than a 1 percent chance of winning the bye is the 49ers, who have the quietest nine-game winning streak I’ve ever seen (and I’m from the Bay Area!). I get the math is tricky with the win-out-win-bye situation the Eagles have, but are we discounting the Niners?
Ty Schalter: Not at all. For all the heat he (rightfully, I think) took over his handling of Trey Lance and Jimmy G, he’s primed to walk over the Cardinals with Brock Purdy and — with the Giants’ help — into the No. 1 seed. It’s an achievement.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I was in the Bay Area recently, and the feeling there is nothing but optimism for another Super Bowl berth. The East Coast Media Bias (TM) is strong, but so is the Shanahan mystique. I don’t think the Niners and their gaudy win streak are being slept on.
neil: But I agree, Maya, that 7 percent in our model feels low for the Niners’ chance at the top seed — all they need is to beat the woeful Cardinals and have a suddenly ordinary Eagles team lose to a bitter rival. I could easily see both scenarios happening.
(The Vikings already did their part for San Fran’s cause as well, taking themselves out of the NFC top-seed race with that ugly loss to the Packers.)
maya: Are they the scariest team on the NFC side of the bracket, with or without the bye?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s such a weird year. I wouldn’t call the Niners scary — particularly if their defense plays like it did against the Raiders. Since Week 15, the Niners defense is 13th-best in the league by EPA. They’re not overwhelming offenses lately. But they’re winning, and I’m not sure there’s a reasonable alternate adjective.
maya: Part of me is prepared to be surprised by the Cowboys. Part of me is not.
neil: Same. Dallas has the NFC’s best Simple Rating System, but some of that was driven by beating an Eagles team that SRS didn’t know was missing Hurts. And some of it is that the Cowboys need to prove they can win in the playoffs after a strong regular season, because we’ve seen this movie too many times before.
Ty Schalter: As loath as I am to invoke vibes in a FiveThirtyEight chat, closing the season with an average point differential of 4.5 against the Texans, Jaguars, Hurts-less Eagles and Tannehill-less Titans doesn’t exactly radiate Big Playoff Energy.
maya: We’re going to leave it at that. We’ll be back next week to wrap up the 2022 regular season, and in the meantime, like the rest of the NFL and its fans, we’ll be keeping Hamlin in our thoughts.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.