A potential AFC championship game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs will be played at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium as part of the league’s equity proposal considering the canceled Bills-Bengals game.
Although the Chiefs are the No. 1 seed and the Bills are the No. 2 seed, sources told CBS Sports that the game will be viewed as a true neutral-site contest. In fact, a potential matchup between the Patriots and Rams in the same stadium four years ago is not expected to operate any differently than Super Bowl LIII.
The Chiefs will be designated as the “home” team and thus choose the jersey colors they wear, while the Bills will flip a coin as the designated “away” team. But neither team will be in the Falcons’ usual home locker room, as one team will be in the visiting locker room and the other team will be in the auxiliary locker room. This is common for major non-Falcons sporting events such as the SEC Championship or the College Football Playoff.
While details are being worked out, game demos will likely have one end zone painted in Chiefs colors and the other in Bills colors, with an NFL shield (or AFC logo) at center. Both teams will get their own player introductions. When the Bills score a touchdown, “Whoop!” plays like it’s at Highmark Stadium. When the Chiefs score a touchdown, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Rights (Party!)” will be played, just like in Arrowhead.
The Falcons will staff the game like a typical home game, but the league could have its own big event with it. For example, the NFL might bring in its own public address announcers for games.
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The NFL picked Atlanta to host in part because it’s nearly equal distance from Buffalo and Kansas City. This stadium has been the league’s emergency venue for many years. Both the city and the stadium have a strong ability to host large-scale events.
The full demand for neutral spots came in the final week of the regular season. With the Bills-Bengals game canceled following Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest, the league has a playoff-related competitive balance issue. The Chiefs, Bills and Tigers entered that Monday night all vying for the No. 1 seed.
In a proposed change that narrowly passed, the league created what it believed to be a fairer way to conduct the playoffs, taking into account possible competitive inequities. But the Bengals lost a chance against the top seed in the process.
The Bengals tried and failed to get “no” votes from the other owners. The chiefs abstained from voting on the proposal, while the bill voted in favor, according to sources.
The NFL began scouting potential neutral spots. It’s unclear what Beal’s opinion is, but a league source said the Chiefs indicated they wanted an outdoor field on natural grass. They ended up with a covered stadium on turf.
Still, Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium is one of the best in the league. And it also offers far more premium seats than Arrowhead or Highmark, meaning even if it ends up being a split between the two teams, the gate receipts for the game are higher. (A financial deal is still being worked out, with each team receiving the same allocation of potential game tickets, according to sources.)
The only way the game will be held in Atlanta is if the Bills and Chiefs advance to the AFC Championship Game. If either team loses in the next two weeks, the AFC title game will be played at the home of the top seeded teams.
Multiple independent sources outside the league office have floated a theory: What if this game is the start of a future neutral site conference championship game. The idea is that the league has started bidding for the NFL draft and the NFL scouting mix, so could the NFL consider a neutral site championship game?
“I don’t think anyone is going to say, ‘Well, maybe we should think about this,'” a league source said of the hypothesis.
The problem will be team owners giving up home-field advantage in a game that takes their team to the Super Bowl. The home team also gets to keep all the revenue they earn from their premium seats. But only two team owners are disadvantaged each year, while the other 30 may get more money.
There are also logistical issues. The city prepares for the Super Bowl years in advance, and Atlanta can participate because it’s been an uncharacteristically slow week for the city and the Falcons didn’t make the playoffs. But knowing which stadiums are definitely available for the conference champions before the season starts — or years in advance — will present challenges. What happens if the winning city lets its team play at its home turf? Multiple potential spots are required each year, which is a tall order for the league.
For all the potential challenges, there are also some positives that suggest this is the future. If the NFL has turned schedule releases into made-for-television events, why can’t it turn its second-biggest game of the year into something bigger?