There are just five weeks left in the NFL's regular season and, in a normal year, a game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers would elicit a torrent of playoff predictions and postseason awards predictions.
This year, the NFL universe is focused on something more elemental -- just finishing the season. That there are just five weeks remaining is no small victory in itself. It means that Week 12, which lasted almost an entire week, is finally over, now that the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens, 19-14, in a game that might best have summed up the COVID-inflicted headwinds the NFL is battling in just making it to January.
The Ravens were wildly shorthanded, particularly on offense, because of an outbreak that saw players test positive for 10 consecutive days. Ten practice squad players were activated to fill out the roster for the game.
The outbreak was traced to a Ravens strength and conditioning coach who did not report symptoms and did not consistently wear a mask or a mandated tracking device. As a result, the game was postponed three times, and the game that was played looked it. The Ravens were shorthanded, with quarterback Lamar Jackson among those afflicted, and they had just 11 passing yards in the first half. The Ravens had just one practice since the outbreak began. The Steelers practice schedule was similarly discombobulated by the uncertainty over when the game would be played and they, too, were so sloppy that a furious Mike Tomlin said it was a "junior varsity" performance. The teams combined for four turnovers in the first quarter. The Ravens slipped further down in the AFC playoff picture while the Steelers are 11-0 and the conference's top seed. Still, it's hard to draw any conclusions from this game about what either team would look like under normal conditions.
"Whatever happened, they didn't blink," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That was our goal, not to blink, because we're not going to be pushed around by something that we can't control. We controlled the things we could control in that sense, and that's the real test. I think that's the type of adversity that great things are built on."
Nothing was great about this game except that it was finally played. And the reality is there are no normal conditions this season, and everybody has to get over the abnormality once and for all.
In a pre-game conference call, Dawn Aponte, the league's chief football administrative officer, said the NFL's objective is to safely play all 256 regular season games in the regular 17-week schedule. The scheduling gymnastics that the NFL undertook to get Wednesday's game played in the same "week" were the clearest evidence so far that the league does not want to add a much-discussed 18th week to the back end of the season. If it means a team has to play shorthanded, so be it. The NFL is going to play as long as it is safe, but it can be a long way from perfect.
Their margin for error is narrowing by the day -- the flexibility that bye weeks afforded them for similar outbreaks in Tennessee and New England early in the season is gone, precisely at the moment that the surge of the virus makes it increasingly difficult for personnel to avoid infection.
The issues the NFL confronted last week -- the Ravens' outbreak and the wipeout of the Denver Broncos quarterbacks -- are not unrelated and they speak to the one thing that can still undo the season. That the NFL has gotten this far is a victory, but what threatens them is the same thing threatening the health of the country. We know how to contain the virus, and the NFL knows how it can play safely through it -- it did it during the entirety of training camp and for all but a handful of teams. Even now, in the most difficult period the NFL has traversed, the league's positive test rate is remarkably low. From Nov. 15 to Nov. 28, 61 players tested positive out of more than 2,400 players. That is a positivity rate of 2.54 percent.
The NFL always knew there would be some positive cases, with players and coaches living at home. Outbreaks, though, are ruinous and that is what the protocols are designed to prevent. They require discipline and consistency and selflessness and getting 100 percent buy-in is required. It is, it turns out, just as difficult to battle virus fatigue in the NFL as it is in the general public.
"Let me be very clear: Our protocols aren't failing," NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills said Wednesday. "Our compliance is an area where we can continue to improve. Any protocol is only as good as the compliance that you have. And as I've said before, 90 percent is a failing grade here."
The Ravens, a playoff contender, are a cautionary tale now. They gave the Steelers a remarkably tough contest under impossible circumstances, which included having to use third-string quarterback Trace McSorley in the second half after Robert Griffin III hurt his hamstring. Had they been at anything closer to full strength, this was an entirely winnable game. Instead, Baltimore dropped to 6-5 and is on the outside of the AFC playoff field looking in. If Jackson returns for Week 13 -- which is Tuesday against the Cowboys -- the Ravens could finish 11-5. It is hard to imagine they miss a seven-team field with 11 wins, especially because the Cleveland Browns -- who are ahead of them in the wild card standings -- have a more difficult closing month.
Each week of this season has seemed as if the NFL is walking across a high wire to get from one week of games to the next. It felt in recent days as if it was teetering more than ever before. But on Wednesday afternoon, the Ravens and Steelers righted the league. They played a game that was close and dramatic enough to fit nicely into their rivalry. And, most importantly, they finally ended the month that was Week 12.
"I just feel like the league did their best," Harbaugh said. "We did our best. We didn't bat a thousand. Nobody did. You can't bat a thousand against this thing."