Why Ravens-Steelers could still happen Sunday

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) is stopped short of the goal line by a host of Pittsburgh Steelers defenders during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were scheduled to play Thanksgiving night before a COVID-19 outbreak forced the NFL to reschedule. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

If you read between the lines, ever so carefully, of the NFL’s latest coronavirus mess, you could tell, or at least suspect, that the league saw this coming.

It did not know, specifically, which Baltimore Ravens would test positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. It did not know, with certainty, that the Ravens’ outbreak would swell to double digits. It could not sense, the day before Thanksgiving, that concern would soon peak.

But when the NFL rescheduled a primetime Thanksgiving game between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, it did know the Ravens’ outbreak was ongoing. Its investigation had been extensive, replete with interviews, “genomic epidemiology” and more. It concluded, despite millions of viewers hoping otherwise, that the delicious AFC North showdown simply could not be part of holiday feasts.

And on Thursday night, in the exact time slot previously occupied by Ravens-Steelers, we saw why. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that four more Ravens players and one more coach had tested positive for COVID-19. Had the game not been pushed back to Sunday, all four could have played while COVID-positive. The virus could have ripped through the team.

Instead, the Ravens are on lockdown to prevent further spread. Their facility is closed until Monday. And the NFL is staring at its first major schedule disruption in weeks. Sunday’s game, in the words of Schefter, “doesn’t seem possible” – or at least the “chances of it being played are diminishing quickly.” Common sense would concur.

The league, however, might not – and its resistance to postponement might actually have some merit.

Why Steelers-Ravens could happen Sunday

As of Friday morning, Ravens-Steelers is still on as (re)scheduled: Sunday afternoon, 1:15 p.m. ET, NBC. NFL officials will reportedly meet later Friday to discuss the situation. But no decision is imminent.

Because what matters to the game’s status is not when a Raven last tested positive, or who tested positive. Competitive disadvantages aren’t relevant. What matters is when transmission ceased. That cutoff will determine when Baltimore can safely gather again. And if the cutoff was last Sunday, the following Sunday isn’t an unreasonable reunion date.

What we can say, with a decent amount of certainty, is that transmission probably did occur Sunday. That’s what the Ravens reportedly believe. That night, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mark Ingram tested positive for COVID-19. The tests were administered in the morning, meaning both played against the Titans while COVID-positive, and likely while infectious.

Four days later, multiple teammates tested positive. That lag time lines up precisely with the virus’ incubation period. The vast majority of infections take 3-7 days to become detectable via test. If Dobbins, or Ingram, or another teammate or staffer infected his peers on Sunday, epidemiologists would expect those infections to show up for the first time on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday.

This explains why the Ravens outbreak has grown even while the team operates remotely. Because they’re operating remotely, though, opportunities for further transmission have been slim. Baltimore briefly closed its facility Monday morning, then reopened for an afternoon walkthrough, then shut up shop again Tuesday after more positive tests. Perhaps Monday offered the virus additional opportunities to spread; perhaps it didn’t. But Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday almost certainly didn’t. Friday won’t.

And this is why Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, expressed confidence on Wednesday that the game could be played Sunday – while simultaneously hinting that the outbreak could still escalate.

“We feel like we have a really good handle on exactly when transmission occurred and how it occurred,” he told NFL Network. “And I think that we feel like we’re just a couple of days away from being out of that window of vulnerability.”

Translation: There could be more positives coming. We think we’ll catch all of them before Sunday.

Thursday, clearly, fell inside the window that Sills mentioned. Friday does too. But Sunday will mark seven days since the Ravens last spent a full day together; and played a full game together; and congregated in a sweaty locker room together. It is unlikely that a player who contracted the virus last Sunday would test negative six consecutive days thereafter. It is reasonable, therefore, to think that any Ravens player who trots out onto Heinz Field Sunday will be virus-free. And so it’s reasonable to play the game.

Why Monday or Tuesday would be safer

But of course, low-risk is not no-risk. Rapid pregame testing should be employed. Special travel arrangements, like those the Patriots made for a Week 4 game in Kansas City, will likely be necessary. Any player or staffer known to have had close contact with an individual who’s already tested positive should stay home.

In fact, if the NFL truly holds player safety paramount, it really should push Ravens-Steelers back to Monday or Tuesday. Doing so would all but shut the outbreak’s window. The only thing fixing the game to Sunday, and keeping the window cracked, is a primetime television audience four days later.

The NFL is holding firm on Sunday because further adjustment would require yet more adjustment. Baltimore can’t play Tuesday because it’s also scheduled to play Thursday, against the Cowboys, in front of an eight-figure audience on FOX. And Thursday night games can’t just be seamlessly replaced. When Week 5 shuffling forced a Week 6 Chiefs-Bills game out of the Thursday night slot, the slot went unfilled. The league would prefer to avoid a repeat.

But if safety is the foremost concern, it should relent. Ravens-Cowboys can be pushed back to the following Monday or Tuesday. An empty primetime slot is better than a reignited outbreak, which could lead to a cancellation, and a Week 18, and potentially further upheaval.

“We just want to contain this outbreak!” Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell tweeted Friday, two days after being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. “Speaking from experience ... you don’t want to catch covid! This virus is brutal! I pray no one else has to go thru this. This is bigger than football.”

The NFL’s other options

The NFL, while considering all of this, will also continue monitoring the Ravens. “Obviously you have to take each day as it comes, and look for any new data that may emerge,” Sills said Wednesday. If cases continue to arise through the weekend, the question flips from when the game should be played to if it will be played in Week 12 at all.

And if the answer is no, the F-word could come into play: Forfeit.

Per an Oct. 5 memo from commissioner Roger Goodell to teams, “Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline, including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game.” The Ravens have already disciplined a strength coach for protocol violations, a sign that punishment could apply.

But forfeiture would require players on both teams forfeiting game checks – something none of them want to do. According to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala, the forfeit option isn’t being considered.

So, with both the Steelers and Ravens past their bye weeks, the NFL’s choice would then be between the ad-hoc creation of a Week 18, or a cancellation of the game and a temporary expansion of the playoffs to 16 teams. The latter option, ironically, would benefit the Ravens, who are currently on the AFC’s playoff bubble – and who would be heavy underdogs in Pittsburgh without a host of starters.

All of these scenarios, however, could be moot if the NFL is right.

“We’ve done a very, very deep dive into this situation,” Sills said Wednesday. He and his team of experts “feel like we’re very close to the end of that transmission event, absent any new information that would change the facts that we have right now.”

That’s why Ravens-Steelers could still happen this weekend.

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