It’s been a whirlwind two weeks for the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, and now one team will put an end to the other’s season.
The Bills visited the Bengals for a Monday Night Football matchup in Cincinnati with major playoff implications. The game came to an abrupt and terrifying halt when Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field due to a cardiac arrest. The NFL went from suspended that night to canceled all together.
Hamlin has since made progress in a remarkable recovery, while the Bills and Bengals each ended their regular seasons with a win. Both teams advanced past the wild card round, setting up another highly anticipated showdown.
Sunday’s matchup will take place at Highmark Stadium, the Bills’ home venue, but it took an unprecedented series of events to set it up. Here’s why the game will kick off in Orchard Park, N.Y., instead of Cincinnati or even a neutral site.
What seeds are the Bills and Bengals?
The Bills are the AFC’s No. 2 seed, while the Bengals are the conference’s No. 3 seed.
New England Patriots
With the cancellation of their head-to-head matchup, the Bills and Bengals finished the year with 16 games played instead of 17 like the league’s 30 other teams.
Could the Bills have been the No. 1 seed with a win over the Bengals?
Had the Bills beaten the Bengals and followed that up with a Week 18 win over the New England Patriots, they would have clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the coveted first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They wound up beating the Patriots in Week 18, but the canceled Week 17 game limited their season record to 13-3.
Buffalo had the tiebreaker over the Kansas City Chiefs after beating them in Week 6, but the cancellation removed their shot at a 14th win. The Chiefs were able to move into the conference’s top seed with a Week 18 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders that brought their record to 14-3.
Could the Bengals have been the No. 1 seed with a win over the Bills?
The Bengals could have reached as high as the top seed in the AFC if they earned wins in Week 17 and 18. Instead, the Week 17 cancellation limited their seeding possibilities.
The team entered Week 17 with an 11-4 record. With a win over the Bills and a Week 18 win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals would have been the No. 2 seed at worst. Mix in a Chiefs loss to the Raiders, and the Bengals would have been the No. 1 seed.
Without the Week 17 game, the Bills were one game up with one game to go. The Bengals would have needed to beat the Bills in Week 17 to get the head-to-head tiebreaker. Cincinnati’s only chance to move into the No. 2 seed was contingent on the Bills losing to the Patriots, but Buffalo picked up a 35-23 win to close out the regular season.
Along with a slim chance at the No. 2 seed, the Bengals’ incentive was to avoid a potential coin toss. As part of the NFL’s updated rules for the AFC playoffs following the Week 17 cancellation, a Week 18 Ravens win in Cincinnati would have prompted a coin toss to determine which AFC North team would host the other in the wild card round. The Bengals ensured the playoff matchup would take place at Paycor Stadium by beating the Ravens 27-16 in Week 18 before winning a rematch in the wild card round.
Did the NFL consider a neutral site for the Bills-Bengals playoff game?
The NFL mulled possibilities across the AFC playoffs and even implemented major scenarios, like the aforementioned coin toss and a potential neutral site AFC title game. However, the league ultimately decided that a Bills-Bengals playoff game would be played at the home stadium of the higher seed.
“Yes, there was (consideration for a Buffalo-Cincinnati neutral site),” NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay said on Jan. 6 (h/t USA TODAY Sports). “That was discussed at length on the call today amongst ownership.”
“The fact that Buffalo and Cincy never got played, they're going to have a different number of games played relative to Kansas City,” league vice president of broadcast planning Michael North said. “But when it comes to Buffalo and Cincinnati playing each other potentially in the divisional round of the playoffs, they have played the same number of games – they've both played 16 games. So there wasn't really a conversation about a coin flip relative to the host site. We'll let that play out on the field this weekend.”
Where would a Bills-Chiefs AFC Championship Game take place?
Bills-Chiefs is the one remaining AFC Championship Game possibility that would take place at a neutral site.
If the Bills beat the Bengals and the Chiefs beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round, the teams will travel to Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 29, to decide which team goes to Super Bowl LVII.
Where would a Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game take place?
If the Bengals and Chiefs advance, they will play an AFC Championship Game rematch at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
Where would a Bills or Bengals vs. Jaguars AFC Championship Game take place?
If the Jaguars beat the Chiefs on Saturday, the winner of the Bills-Bengals game would host the AFC Championship Game.