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Are Neutral Site Conference Championship Games the Future of the NFL?

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Ahead of Sunday’s AFC and NFC title games, Boardroom’s GRIDIRON ROUNDTABLE reconvenes to explore the merits of neutral-site games with a Super Bowl bid on the line.

Several football games happened one week ago. On Sunday, you only get two — and one of those games almost didn’t have an actual home team.

The NFL made the correct decision in opting to cancel the barely-off-the-ground Week 17 game between the Bills and Bengals following Damar Hamlin’s beyond-scary cardiac event. The most important thing, of course, is that Hamlin is on the road to recovery and in tremendous spirits by all accounts. With football indeed still happening, however, the league prepared itself to make an unprecedented call: If Buffalo and the No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs met for the conference championship, the game would take place at a neutral site out of respect for these teams not being able to play the same number of regular season games.

But then again, here we are: Bengals-Chiefs at KC’s Arrowhead Stadium for a spot in Super Bowl LVII, while the 49ers and Eagles meet in Philly.

With all this neutral site intrigue ultimately hypothetical but somehow eerily close, it was naturally time to convene the GRIDIRON ROUNDTABLE — Sam Dunn, Anthony Puccio, and Shlomo Sprung — to explore the pros and cons of the neutral site concept (and the potential to expand it in the future) while answering three key queries:

  1. Pick a player or coach who could be playing his last game with his current team. Where does he end up?
  2. Would a neutral site NFC or AFC Championship just be a one-off, or something the NFL should or will expand on?
  3. Assume that neutral-site conference titles become a trend one day. Let’s talk cities, sponsors, and assorted gimmicks you want to see.

Let’s get neutral.

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Which player/coach is possibly playing his last game for his team? Where does he end up?

ANTHONY PUCCIO: I’ll say Miles Sanders. He’s gonna be coveted by several teams when free agency rolls around, and the Eagles already have two rotational backs signed for 2023 in Kenneth Gainwell and Trey Sermon. Would they be willing to give him a long-term deal?

My safety net answer is Jimmy Garoppolo. I think San Fran lets Brock Purdy and Trey Lance battle it out for the starter’s role next season; Jimmy would immediately become one of the more respectable free agent QBs on the market.

SAM DUNN: JuJu Smith-Schuster. In another era of wide receiver salary standards, you’d consider him a candidate to stay with a juggernaut like Kansas City at a discount, but he and his agent surely saw the four years and $72 million the Jaguars threw at Christian Kirk in free agency just one year ago. As arguably the most attractive wideout hitting the open market — and with the Chiefs about to owe over $60 million against the cap next year to Mahomes and Travis Kelce alone — the writing is on the wall, especially if the former Steeler comes up huge the rest of the way.

SHLOMO SPRUNG: Of the many more-than-capable Black assistant coaches in the NFL, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has proven worthy of a head coaching opportunity. His unit led the league in points allowed and yards allowed per game this season after finishing third and ninth in those categories respectively last season. If teams are actually interested in minority candidates other than checking a mandatory Rooney Rule box and moving on, Ryans should be coaching a team next season.

Would a neutral site NFC or AFC title game be something the NFL should expand on?

SS: The NFL is going to try. There’s too much money to be made to leave neutral conference title games alone after opening up this box. The league was obviously put in a tough spot with the tiebreaker scenario among the Bengals, Bills, and Chiefs, and it got lucky (in a sense) that Buffalo lost to Cincy in the Divisional Round rather than in this AFC Championship, because there would have been some stern complaints in Western New York otherwise.

SD: The NFL will absolutely do it once, and perhaps one more time within the next two to three years afterward — perhaps overseas. Right? To borrow Shlomo’s metaphor while combining it with another one, you can’t put the toothpaste back in Pandora’s box.

The league never met a big ol’ dang ol’ revenue stream it didn’t like, and this ought to be considered an incredible antidote to a smaller-market team — the Bengals, for instance, are generally estimated to be the least valuable franchise in the league — hosting the No. 2 or No. 3 most important game in the world’s most profitable sports league. Would it be impure or downright criminal to hijack a would-be Super Bowl clincher right out of the hands of Cincinnati or *gulp* DUUUVAL? Well, yes. But the NFL is a revenue machine if there ever was one, and life isn’t fair.

However, if Roger Goodell and Co. really wanted to get sneeringly sinister, they’d tease this possibility to the league’s higher-performing have-nots as a way of implicitly strongarming them to invest more in their teams, build up stadium amenities, relocate to Mexico City, threaten to abolish the salary cap, etc.

Actually, yeah, let’s definitely abolish the salary cap.

You even say the words out loud, you go to jail. Directly to jail.

AP: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Teams play extra-hard late in the regular season for home field advantage — why would they risk injuries if it wouldn’t matter as much? Of course, in this year’s specific context, what other option did the NFL have?

Let’s say neutral-site conference titles become a trend. Then what?

SD: Here’s what must happen and I will accept nothing less:

  • Put both conference championships at neutral sites for perpetuity. The “home” team by virtue of seeding automatically wins the coin toss every time and gets to choose the safe word.
  • Treat them like bowl games in college football and name them with a sponsor plus a gimmicky name complementary the Super Bowl, but an order of magnitude less — “The Bad Boy Mowers Excellent Bowl at the NFC Championship.” “The Mutated Cordyceps Fungus Solidly Above Average Bowl at the AFC Championship.” Think of the revenue streams. Sheesh.
  • Both games have dueling halftime show musical guests and America gets to vote on which one wins $1 million to give to the charity of their choice via touchtone phone (rotary will not work for this).
  • If the cordyceps fungus wins the fan vote, it is already too late. Just enjoy the game, Kemosabe.

AP: I have several thoughts here: Maybe you go to places that lost their respective teams (i.e. St. Louis and Oakland). Maybe you go to the epicenter of American football in Dallas (Not like the Cowboys will be playing in the NFC Championship anyway!). Play in Portland and call it the Nike Bowl. Consider where these big brands are located and capitalize on location/naming rights.

SS: Getting a bye when no one else in the conference does is incentive enough. Some fun gimmicks? Put the conference title games in London, Germany, Mexico, Toronto. If the league wants to build a path to becoming a true global sport like soccer or basketball, this is its chance to do so.

For the latest odds on the NFL conference championship games, visit FanDuel Sportsbook.

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