Opinion: Ravens-Steelers COVID-19 postponement further reflects NFL’s challenge for stretch run

Count me among the surprised that the NFL pushed the pause button on the traditional Thanksgiving night game.

Imagine the ratings bonanza to be had with another installment in the series pitting bitter A-North rivals, as the desperate Baltimore Ravens seek to hand the Pittsburgh Steelers their first loss of the season. 

Yeah, despite the whining from a few tone-deaf Steelers (that includes you, JuJu Smith-Schuster) it can wait until Sunday.

Guess we’re not entitled to that third serving of NFL action on Turkey Night after all, which has been part of the package since the league added the third game in 2006.

Tough, but nowhere in the same universe with the pain of the millions of people who have been affected by a pandemic that rages on with increasing numbers marking positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

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With a Ravens outbreak resulting in nine players placed on the COVID-19 list by Wednesday and ESPN reporting another player added on Thursday, the league lived up to its frequent touting of concern for the health and safety of its players and wisely chose common sense over a valuable primetime slot.

This, despite the contention early in the week that the game would go on as originally scheduled.

What happened?

More COVID cases. On Wednesday, three more Ravens players were added to the list that indicates someone has either tested positive for the coronavirus or has been close contact with an infected individual. Additionally, the Ravens revealed that a yet-to-be-identified staffer has been disciplined by the team for reckless actions related to the league’s pandemic protocols – measures that include the basic stipulation of wearing a mask while at team headquarters.

 The matter also underscores the increasing challenge the NFL continues to grapple with as it stays the course with its mission to stay the course and complete a regular season and playoffs on the like-never-before road to the Super Bowl.

Usually, Thanksgiving signals the start of the stretch run for the NFL’s season with the playoff races better defined.

That much hasn’t changed. The race is on and it’s crowded.

Yet the grim reality is that the postponement of Ravens-Steelers might signal the start of another round of disruptions for the league coinciding with rising COVID cases across the nation.

 Remember back in September, when there were just a handful of COVID-19 cases in the league? Then came October, with the Tennessee Titans outbreak and a slew of schedule tweaks.

Now, despite more stringent protocols instituted by the league, the threats are escalating.

  As of Wednesday night, there were 61 players on COVID-19 reserve across the league – including some names you’d recognize, such as Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, Vikings receiver Adam Thielen and Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

Just seven teams did not have a single player on the list on Wednesday, but obviously, that’s no reason to exhale. The New England Patriots, for example, didn’t have any players on the list. But they’ve been there and done that, losing starting quarterback Cam Newton and all-pro cornerback Stephone Gilmore, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, for a game.

The Jacksonville Jaguars, meanwhile, had just two players on the COVID-19 list on Wednesday, but are adjusting to the COVID-related absence of defensive coordinator Todd Wash and two defensive assistants. The San Francisco 49ers had six players on the COVID-19 list, while the Cleveland Browns tallied five on the list on Wednesday.

In other words, JuJu, this week’s Ravens could be next week’s Steelers. That’s not a knock on the Steelers, whose coach, Mike Tomlin has struck a consistently serious tone all season about dealing with the threat.

The same could be said about the messaging from Ravens coach John Harbaugh, and we see what’s happened with his team. The threats just don’t let up.

 Nor does the reality that the NFL’s season is heading into the stretch run on two distinctly different, but intertwined tracks.

After Thursday’s two games, the NFL will have 93 more to complete its 256-game regular season. After Monday night’s game, roughly 70% of the regular season will be done.

 But brace yourself for a long stretch run in more ways than one, with the contingencies of staging an 18th week of a regular or outright canceling some games clearly part of the playoff puzzle.

  As the postponement of the marquee Ravens-Steelers game reminds us, the NFL’s biggest foe remains the one it is hard-pressed to contain.

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