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NFL playoff bubbles a subject of active discussion as COVID cases rise

As COVID-19 cases rise around the country, the NFL has been affected more over the last two weeks that at any time since training camp began.

The Ravens-Steelers game has been postponed twice, with Baltimore set to play without 10 starters -- including reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson -- on Tuesday night, while the Broncos will play the Saints today without a quarterback.

The league is now considering its most dramatic action yet to prevent such situations in the postseason.

NFL officials are actively discussing creating "local bubbles" for the 14 or 16 teams that make the playoffs -- isolating all personnel in hotels except to go to and from the team facility and strictly enforcing limitations on who is permitted inside to interact with players, coaches or support staff.

That's considered a more feasible solution than creating 32 separate bubbles for the remainder of the regular season, or creating one large bubble in the mold of the NBA and NHL playoffs, with thousands more people inside because of the size of NFL rosters and staffs.

No final decision has been made, and the union would also need to sign off. Bubbles do have a downside.

For one, they take about a week to establish once everyone has gone through COVID-19 testing and other protocols. Also, there still would be some people coming and going, and if someone tests positive inside the bubble, the possibility of an outbreak can increase dramatically -- concerns Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, has voiced publicly over the past several months.

The league and NFLPA recently enacted a few measures aimed at clamping down. Facilities are closed Monday and Tuesday this week in light of rising positivity rates across the country and the possibility of exposures from out-of-town guests during the Thanksgiving holiday. Players are now required to wear masks on the sidelines if they're not substituting into the game or wearing a helmet. And the size of traveling parties has been cut down.

Still, as the virus rages around the country, there have been issues:

  • The Ravens will be without at least 10 starters on Tuesday against the Steelers, and they also currently have no strength coaches and half of their athletic trainers due to COVID-19 protocols. Strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders was suspended for not reporting symptoms and not consistently wearing a mask and tracking device.
  • The Steelers will play without running back James Conner and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, among others. QB coach Matt Canada also tested positive and is out Tuesday.
  • The Broncos had three of their QBs -- Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and practice squader Blake Bortles -- knocked out because they were high-risk close contacts to Jeff Driskel, who tested positive. The players were spotted on video reviewed by the league not wearing masks during a meeting, sources say, and the subject also came up in interviews. That led to practice squad WR Kendall Hinton as the starting QB for the Broncos, by virtue of him playing the position at Wake Forest for a few years.
  • The entire Jaguars defensive staff was quarantined all week as high-risk close contacts, and three assistants -- including defensive coordinator Todd Wash -- won't be eligible to coach in Sunday's game against the Browns.
  • Other star players on teams in the playoff hunt continue to test positive and miss games, including Vikings receiver Adam Thielen and Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald this week.

Those are just the most recent issues that came up over the last few days. The NFL is confident in its protocols, though those are contingent on players actually following them. At this point still, there is less than a 1 percent positivity rate among the thousands of COVID-19 tests the league's lab partners conduct each week.

As far as the Ravens go, their game against the Steelers is still on for Tuesday, with the belief that the spread has stopped, though positive tests are still coming in from previous contacts in line with the incubation period of the virus.

The league will also continue to monitor health developments, with new tests coming with faster responses and higher accuracy.

And then there is the question of a possible Week 18. It's not the ideal situation -- creating an extra week between the regular season and playoffs to get in games that had to be moved due to COVID. And if, say, two non-playoff bound teams have a rescheduled game, it may not be added to Week 18. The tentative plan would be only to add a week to the regular season only if it would put a team in the playoffs or not.

The NFL remains committed to trying to play all 256 games over 17, or 18, weeks. Only if all meaningful games cannot be completed would the playoff field be expanded from 14 to 16 teams.

But just like anything with COVID-19, it's all on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis.