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Column: Half a season and a Super Bowl ahead for NFL

It appears like one other time, however it was solely a few months in the past that the NFL managed to drag off what appeared like a minor miracle. With Roger Goodell main the cheers from his basement, the league performed a digital draft that stocked groups with new gamers and, extra importantly, contaminated nobody.

The precise season was at all times going to be tougher. For that, the NFL wanted a actual miracle and the buy-in of everybody – together with the Las Vegas Raiders – to clear a path to the Super Bowl in February.

Whether the title sport will probably be performed Feb. 7 in Tampa Bay nonetheless stays in query, midway via a schedule upended at occasions by the coronavirus. If anybody wanted a reminder the virus was in cost, they acquired it this week when the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers put quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and three others on the COVID-19 listing after tight finish Vance McDonald examined constructive.

Equally as worrisome for the NFL, the variety of folks testing constructive doubled this week within the league’s newest outcomes. The new positives included 15 gamers and 41 different staff officers.

One factor is definite: With empty or partially crammed stadiums and faux crowd noise filling broadcasts, this isn’t the NFL anybody desires.

That contains the brand new staff in Sin City, the place a 5-3 begin and a win over the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs ought to have followers dancing on the Las Vegas Strip. If the city is worked up, the Raiders appear to be the final to know.

“We can’t sense it,’’ Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “We have played in front of empty stadiums and we don’t go anywhere. You do look forward to those times, but you really have a strange, I don’t know, experience going right now, that’s for sure.”

It’s unusual throughout the league, although the NFL has managed to make it via 9 weeks of play, because of voluminous COVID-19 testing and a rising consciousness amongst gamers that they don’t wish to be those messing issues up.

The league determined early on to go with out a bubble like those that helped the NBA and NHL full their seasons. Just testing, and plenty of it, together with an underlying hope that NFL gamers and coaches acknowledged the one manner there was going to be a season was if everybody behaved correctly.

And now right here we’re, midway via a season in contrast to another. Everyone hasn’t at all times behaved correctly and the video games haven’t at all times gone off on schedule.

Through all of it, although, the trail to the Super Bowl stays open.

“You know what? I feel like a lot of guys are going to be smart, be cautious of the situations they’re in,” Chiefs extensive receiver Tyreek Hill mentioned. “And once I say that, in the event that they go to a restaurant, put on a masks. If they go to a park, put on a masks. We’re in a pivotal second. We want everybody.’’

Still, nothing is regular, from Tom Brady below heart in Tampa Bay to the COVID-19 assessments that gamers and staff officers start virtually day by day with.

Meanwhile, the virus retains spreading across the nation whilst some groups permit restricted numbers of followers inside stadiums. How it appears could also be as completely different in February because it was when Goodell was in his basement holding the draft in April.

To strive and make it to the end line, the NFL has a contingency plan to extend the season a week and expand the playoffs from 14 to 16 teams if teams don’t get in 16 regular-season games.

But the fact the NFL has made it this far borders on remarkable. That it administered more than a half million tests through the first week of November with only 78 players testing positive borders on incredible.

Meanwhile, enough story lines are playing out that have nothing to do with COVID-19 to keep fans interested.

The Steelers are unbeaten through eight games for the first time. The Raiders are winning in their new city. The Jets are awful, and the Giants aren’t much better.

And on Sunday night, Brady and Drew Brees faced off against each other in a matchup of the two greatest quarterbacks in the game. Brady threw three interceptions in a lopsided loss, leaving the debate still open whether he or Bill Belichick was responsible for New England’s success over the years.

But this will always be a season overshadowed by the virus no matter what happens. This will always be the season remembered not for what happened on the field but everything that was occurring everywhere else.

Halfway through, February is clearly in sight even as the virus rages. Amazingly, the schedule is still intact and every Sunday is still filled with games.

The NFL just may get there, just like the NBA, NHL and MLB found a way to crown their champions. But there’s no guarantee, especially without a bubble. Things could quickly fall apart and no amount of contingency planning will overcome the worst-case scenario of a playoff team coming down with multiple infections.

For now, though, the NFL plays on.

___

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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