Insider notebook: Schedule changes NFL should make now to save the season, plus MVP and Week 5 picks – CBS Sports

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
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Because we don’t have rapid tests with near 100% accuracy for COVID-19, there are strong chances that infected players will take the field on game day with the virus. And because football does not lend itself to physical distancing, the potential for outbreaks will continue. These are objective truths. It’s a miracle the Vikings still have no positive cases after taking the field against the Titans two weeks ago, and perhaps they just got lucky. We are going to continue holding our collective breath for what comes of the Patriots and Chiefs from Monday night.

We are now officially one-quarter of the way through the regular season (Thursday night’s game was the 64th of 256 planned regular season games), and the wait-and-see approach the league has taken won’t be viable much longer. There needs to be action taken beyond “pressing pause on the season,” because that won’t do anything since the virus isn’t going to go anywhere. We all have to live with the virus until there’s a vaccine, which means we have to play football with the virus, which means pressing pause just delays facing these issues.

The NFL‘s stated wish has been to play all 256 games plus a postseason to crown a legitimate Super Bowl LV champion. Each passing day shows it’s less likely all 256 will be played, and there’s little that can be done about that at this point. But it’s time the league deploys a plan for the rest of the season that ensures a competitive and balanced postseason. Here’s what I propose.

Create Week 18

The first step is to create the so-called Week 18 for games to be played on Sunday, Jan. 10. The league was fortunate that Pittsburgh and Tennessee’s bye weeks could be manipulated to play that game at a later date. The NFL won’t be as fortunate as this continues. At this point, it is reasonable to assume some teams will miss games.

The league should tack on another week to play games that are—and this is very important—necessary to establish playoff teams and seeding. In theory, this is where the Bills at Titans game would go. As of now, the NFL is planning to play it on Tuesday contingent on no more positive tests for the Titans until then. You have two teams vying for AFC seeding (possibly a first-round bye) and need that 16th game to keep competitive balance.

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Here’s why: Let’s say the Chiefs play all their games and finish 13-3 with a head-to-head win against Buffalo in Week 6. Let’s say the Bills play 15 games and sit at 13-2. Who gets the No. 1 seed in the playoffs? Buffalo has the better winning percentage and may have gone 14-2 where the tiebreaker wouldn’t have mattered. This is just one headache that could arise from the many permutations of an off-balance schedule.

If the Week 9 game between Washington and the Giants gets postponed and both teams are out of playoff contention come January (as we all expect), then there’s no reason to play that game. Remember, this is all about crowning a legitimate champion.

Now you may say “what about draft order?!” And that’s a fair point, but draft order is sometimes determined by a coin flip. I don’t see why you’d even have to change how you determine draft order, but if you do, it’s frankly a bridge that can be crossed later.

Push back the playoffs a week

The newly created Week 18 will force the playoffs to be pushed back a week. I’ll have more on that later, but I know you’re wondering about it now.

Require postseason hotel stays

One or two or four or eight playoff bubbles aren’t going to happen. What running an NFL franchise requires is simply too great to find a handful of locations to house a few teams who are all competing against each other.

I wince at the thought of the league requiring players to stay in hotels for the rest of the season starting now. That’s a very long time to be away from your family, and it’s also not what anyone signed up for. Furthermore, I’m told the league is not seriously considering this. But if this does happen, the opt-out window should reopen.

But at the conclusion of Week 17, any team that is still playing must have all its players and essential staff stay in hotels through their final game, whenever that may be. This would force everyone involved to stay in a hotel for at least a week and up to just more than a month if they play in the Super Bowl.

I am not in favor of bubbling teams in, say, southern California or Texas. I believe the regular season matters, and thus playoff seeding matters, and thus you should retain some sort of advantage for being a better team for four months. If the Packers earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC, for example, and have to play second-seeded Seattle, the Seahawks should spend the week at their facilities and in their team hotel before taking their chartered flight to Green Bay the day before the game, where they stay in another hotel that has been sanitized with hospital-grade disinfectant.

Being away from one’s family and friends for an extended period of time is difficult for anyone, just as we’ve seen with the bubbles in other sports leagues. I think, to a person, everyone would agree to it for a month in the pursuit of a championship, but requiring it now is a bridge too far in my opinion.

Cancel the Pro Bowl

This seems like an obvious decision that will be made in a matter of time. The NFL and NFLPA have already agreed to postpone Pro Bowl pay for this year as a way to make up for revenue shortfalls, and scrapping the game altogether saves a lot of headaches.

Dozens of players and staff would be flying in from across the country after (likely) not living by the same restrictions as they had while still in season. Then they’re supposed to play a game against each other? We’re seeing the issues with these guys playing games that matter under controlled conditions throughout the week, so it’s not hard to imagine the very legitimate issues that will arise with those conditions aren’t as controlled for a game that doesn’t matter.

For contract purposes, players should still be named to the Pro Bowl and get the bonuses teams are contractually obligated to pay. But there’s no good reason to play the physical game during a pandemic.

Keep the Super Bowl bye week

When I said push the playoffs and cancel the Pro Bowl, you may have thought the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 could be played as scheduled. Under this format, I do not advise that.

For months the city of Tampa has been preparing for the Super Bowl to move to another date. Hotels have been blocked off. There’s nothing scheduled to happen at Raymond James Stadium for the rest of February. Sure, there’d be some logistical issues once the game slides from Feb. 7 to 14, but the sooner you make the decision, the fewer issues there will be.

Players competing in the Super Bowl need that week to get healthy from any lingering injuries. At that point, they will have gone through the most unusual and grueling season of their professional careers and will have earned a week off before the big game.

But on top of that, you may need that bye week to operate as a COVID buffer. Maybe someone has contracted the virus and needs that time to either recover (if they had symptoms) or to test negative enough times to satisfy protocols.

Teams would remain in their home city until the week of the game and then fly to Tampa the Sunday before Super Bowl LV like always. Once in their Tampa hotels, teams would operate the exact same way they did throughout the playoffs: hotel to the practice field and back to the hotel. The game kicks off the next week and a legitimate champion is crowned.

MVP race

Time for my biweekly MVP rankings. Know what I despise? When people say “if the season ended today” and then list who would be in the playoffs or win MVP. The season isn’t ending today, and if it were, everyone would have acted differently in the days and weeks leading up to this point.

Anyway.

Russell Wilson is still at the top of my list for MVP. His resume through four games is simply better than everyone else. Any of the following names can top him in the coming 12 or so games, but anyone who tells you he’s not No. 1 is just trying to make you believe he or she is smarter than everyone else.

2. Aaron Rodgers, 3. Patrick Mahomes, 4. Josh Allen, 5. Tom Brady, 6. Lamar Jackson, 7. Ben Roethlisberger, 8. Dak Prescott, 9. Ryan Tannehill, 10. T.J. Watt. (Derek Carr and Cam Newton are honorable mentions.)

Picks

I gotta say … I’m worried I’m losing my juice? I’ve stayed above .500 every week, but just barely the last two weeks. I went 8-7 last week to bring my season record to 40-22-1. Sure that sounds good, but I hold myself to a higher standard. I took the Bucs on Thursday Night Football, so that amazingly sends me to 0-4 on TNF.

Panthers at Falcons

Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox

I said at the start of the season that I didn’t think I’d pick the Panthers in any game this year but still believed they’d win five or six games. Sure, they have a green defense, but Teddy Bridgewater plus Joe Brady will be too much in some games this season. Well, they get the Falcons defense this week. Firing Dan Quinn after a Monday night game never made much sense, but if the Falcons lose to a rebuilding division rival at home to move to 0-5? I very much believe that could trigger the second firing of this season.

The pick: Panthers

Jaguars at Texans

Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

This is the third time I’ve picked the Texans this year after they’ve (obviously) let me down the previous two times. J.J. Watt referred to a fresh start now that Bill O’Brien is out of the building, and I think the Texans play up for Romeo Crennel on Sunday. Plus, they’re the better team.

The pick: Texans

Giants at Cowboys

Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS

This month will probably decide the Giants’ fate for this season. They get the Cowboys, then Washington and then Philly all before Halloween. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Giants D (outside of that 49ers game…yuck), but the offense just cannot hold up its end of the bargain. Feels like New York needs the bye to get here and hit reset, but instead, the Giants have to wait until Week 11 for that.

The pick: Cowboys

Chargers at Saints

Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN

I absolutely love what I’m seeing from the big arm, big hair young gun in Los Angeles. Justin Herbert has a passer rating of 102.2 despite being pressured on 41.5% of his dropbacks. No other quarterback with a passer rating of at least 100 is getting pressured within five percentage points of Herbert. He’s 0-3 as a starter but has lost those games by a combined 15 points. If L.A.’s defense can turn over the Saints, young Herbert will earn his first W in the upset.

The pick: Chargers

The rest

Ravens over Bengals

Chiefs over Raiders

Cardinals over Jets

Steelers over Eagles

Bills over Titans

Rams over Football Team

49ers over Dolphins

Browns over Colts

Patriots over Broncos

Seahawks over Vikings

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