For nearly two months, the NFL tiptoed through the COVID-19 pandemic virtually unscathed.
This week, the reality of the virus landed with an ominous thud.
Multiple positive tests among players forced the league to postpone two of Sunday’s marquee games: Pittsburgh at Tennessee, both undefeated, and New England at Kansas City, a showdown between the last two Super Bowl winners.
Patriots-Chiefs is tentatively scheduled for Monday or Tuesday night, although that was the original contingency plan for Steelers-Titans before that game was rebooked for Oct. 25.
Players from New England and Kansas City tested positive, an announcement made Saturday morning, reportedly among them Patriots quarterback Cam Newton.
“In consultation with infectious disease experts, both clubs are working closely with the NFL and the NFLPA to evaluate multiple close contacts, perform additional testing and monitor developments,” the league said in a statement. “All decisions will be made with the health and safety of players, team and gameday personnel as our primary consideration.”
Multiple reports Saturday said Chiefs practice squad quarterback Jordan Ta’amu tested positive.
There also were three more positive tests among the Titans on Saturday, bringing the total to 16 — eight players and eight other employees.
It’s conceivable the scope of that outbreak could jeopardize Tennessee’s Week 5 home game against Buffalo.
According to reports, these Tennessee players have tested positive: Defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, long snapper Beau Brinkley, practice squad tight end Tommy Hudson, outside linebacker Kamalei Correa, cornerback Kristian Fulton, practice squad cornerback Greg Mabin, and receivers Adam Humphries and Cam Batson.
There’s a high likelihood this isn’t the last time games will be disrupted by the virus.
The silver lining for the league is that this reshuffling is happening before teams have had their week off. If there are outbreaks later in the season, it will be much more complicated to reconfigure the schedule.
These situations also move the NFL one step closer to tacking an 18th week onto the regular-season schedule, one designated for makeup games.
It’s easy enough to bump back the start of the playoffs by a week, and eliminate the week off between the championship games and the Super Bowl.
For that matter, moving the Super Bowl wouldn’t be nearly as complicated as in a normal year, because there’s no guarantee there would be spectators there, anyway. So blocking off sufficient hotel rooms in Tampa wouldn’t be such an ordeal.
If a playoff-bound team were to complete its 16 games as currently scheduled, an 18th week would provide that team a week off before the postseason.
An extra week also would afford the NFL time to establish a bubble for the postseason and sequester the playoff teams.
This season, only the No. 1 seed in each conference is awarded a week off at the start of the playoffs, as opposed to prior years when the top two NFC and AFC teams got weeks off.
So if there were an 18th week, the No. 1 seeds would get two weeks off after the season — providing they didn’t have games to make up. What’s more, if a No. 1 seed rested its starters in its 16th game, as some have in the past, those starters would have gone three weeks without playing a game, rekindling the rust-versus-rest dilemma.
Would the NFL tack on an 18th week if there were only a few makeup games that were inconsequential to the postseason picture? Probably not.
With so much swirling uncertainty, however, the NFL is keeping all options on the table.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.