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The end of the NFL season could be chaos owing to COVID-19

The last thing the league wants to do is move games, but they’re having to do so.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Super Bowl Press Conference Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

For much of the 2021 NFL season, COVID-19 has been a background concern. The Delta wave has crashed over the country and Omicron is well on its way, but most weeks in the NFL you’d hardly know it, given that only a handful of players and coaches would land on the list at a given time.

That’s not to downplay the seriousness of the virus so much as it is to acknowledge that the league has been chugging along with nary an interruption to its sacred schedule. That has changed, however, and the change has been both sudden and dramatic.

Close to 100 players—heck, maybe more, the count keeps getting updated—have landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list this past week. That’s forced the NFL to shuffle games to Monday and even Tuesday night in an effort to give teams more time to get vaccinated players cleared to play while still sticking to some semblance of the original 18-week regular season schedule. Whether that’s going to be enough is hard to say, given how rapidly players are being placed on the list and how quickly case are rising nationwide, but a league that’s allergic to moving games at all lining up games for Tuesday tells you a lot about their level of concern.

Arthur Blank reportedly compared it to fighting a ghost, which raises the question of how he knows what fighting a ghost is like, but we’ll get to that another time. The league is grappling with the fact that COVID is likely to once again impact the end of the season in unexpected ways that will force games to be moved around and teams to play with thinned-out rosters, all of which could wreak havoc on the playoff hunt in the NFL. Protocols are changing and will change to reflect that reality, but it remains to be seen whether the league can white-knuckle the schedule for a second straight year or not, though we certainly know they’re going to try.

In the immediate future, the biggest impact on our Falcons might be landing firmly in a playoff spot if they beat the 49ers, given that Washington (currently the #7 seed) is going to have to play short-handed even if the game is on Tuesday against a tough divisional foe. With three players on their own reserve/COVID-19 list already and the team girding their collective loins in an attempt to avoid seeing the drastic spike in cases we’ve seen with teams like Washington and Cleveland, though, the impact is already being felt in Flowery Branch. My fervent hope is that this proves to be the worst week the NFL has to endure and that the Falcons can avoid further positive tests, but that may not be a realistic hope.

Above all else, the NFL should prioritize getting all of its teams to the end of the season healthy and safe. That may involve stretching or breaking the schedule, but some chaos feels inevitable as the league settles in to another winter of COVID-19.