Picture this: The Steelers, a 9-8 football team that just snuck into the playoffs despite another mediocre year, do the impossible and advance all the way to the AFC title game. But instead of having to play a third-straight week on the road, Pittsburgh heads to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, where more than 60 percent of the crowd is waving Terrible Towels at kickoff.
Screw you, Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs' 15-2 regular season and their number-one seed. No team travels like the Pittsburgh Steelers, baby!
OK, but picture this: The Steelers, a 15-2 football team that earned the first seed in the AFC as well as a bye, must travel to AT&T Stadium for the AFC Championship Game. Sure, much like the 9-8 scenario, Pittsburgh is greeted by a majority of supporters waving Terrible Towels, but it just seems wrong that it’s not an overwhelming majority. Why isn’t this game being played at Acrisure Stadium, complete with the type of elements that would make it a true home-field advantage for the black and gold? Besides, you’re a second-ticket holder. You live in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, a location that’s much closer to Acrisure Stadium than it is to AT&T Stadium. Oh yeah, it’s also WAY cheaper to travel to Acrisure Stadium than it is to AT&T Stadium.
Anyway, I don’t know what the distribution of folks in attendance may have been, but this was the reality Bills and Chiefs fans would have faced had both teams advanced to the AFC title game this year. The NFL decided on this as a compromise after the Damar Hamlin near-tragedy at Paul Brown Stadium on January 3, 2023, which led to the cancellation of the Bills/Bengals matchup on MNF, a result that forced both teams to play one less game than Kansas City. Had Buffalo won its final two games, it would have clinched the top seed. Therefore, the league decided to move the AFC Championship Game to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta had both the Bills and Chiefs advanced that far.
Understandable considering the horrific circumstances involved.
You have to give the NFL credit for coming up with a fair solution.
However, it wasn’t long after this decision was made that rumors began to surface of the NFL using this neutral-site conference championship compromise as a test run for possibly making it a permanent deal in the not-so-distant future.
I’m not saying the NFL is soulless, but leave it to that league to take a near-tragedy—Hamlin almost died right on the field after going into cardiac arrest—and use it as an opportunity to create a new revenue stream.
Again, I endorsed the idea of a neutral-site conference title game as a temporary compromise to a regular-season game being canceled because a player almost died, but I vehemently reject the notion of the NFL eventually baking this kind of thing into future postseasons.
The Bills lost to the Bengals in the divisional round over the weekend, an outcome that will now see Cincinnati travel to Arrowhead Stadium for an AFC title game matchup vs. the Chiefs on Sunday.
If you’re a Chiefs fan who decided to pony up the necessary dough to get to Atlanta, did you get a refund on tickets and lodging? Were you able to then purchase tickets to Sunday’s game at Arrowhead?
How much did it cost to book a plane ticket and a hotel room in Atlanta? That price, along with the cost of the ticket, had to set you back a good bit.
Did the possibility of a neutral-site conference championship game price you right out of going at all?
This is the kind of plan that could further alienate the average fan and discourage him/her from going to any games at all—postseason or otherwise. And let’s be real: It’s not exactly cheap for average fans—you know, those working types?—to attend playoff games in their home cities, let alone on the road.
It would also be the kind of idea that would further take the romance out of the NFL postseason. I hate the weather, but I know a lot of Steelers fans who thrive on going to Acrisure Stadium in January when it’s so cold that you don’t even want to take your shirt off—but you do it anyway as a means to intimidate the opposing team.
And history tells us that opposing teams don’t like traveling to hostile stadiums for playoff games.
Speaking of home-field advantage, the NFL has already added one more playoff team in each conference and eliminated one bye. It won’t be long before an eighth playoff team is added in each conference, which would eliminate all byes. If you set the conference title games in neutral stadiums, how much would that further decrease the importance of the regular season?
Word has it that weather would be a total non-factor, as the league could decide to play these neutral-site conference title games in domed stadiums.
Remember when domes were a novelty? Now, we seem to be moving in a direction where every NFL stadium will eventually be a domed venue.
Look what domes have done to college bowl games, where most of the big ones—including the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Peach Bowl—are played indoors. Those games used to have unique atmospheres and were easily distinguishable. Now, it’s like they’re all being played in sterile operating rooms. How long before the Rose Bowl is moved from the actual Rose Bowl and played at SoFi Stadium?
Also, wouldn’t neutral-site conference title games take a bit of the uniqueness away from the Super Bowl, an event that is perfect for a 50/50 crowd?
The Super Bowl is where every NFL team wants to wind up each year. It’s the ultimate destination. It’s the grand stage. The host city becomes the center of the football universe for two weeks leading up to the Big Game.
It’s just my opinion, but having two more neutral-site games would dilute the glorious spectacle that is the annual Super Bowl and the events that lead up to it. It could turn Conference Championship Weekend into the NFL’s version of the Final Four, where getting that far is now the coveted destination.
Finally, I’ve almost always been open-minded about the NFL and its desire to move its league into the future. But I can’t get behind the notion of playing conference championship games at neutral sites.
I’m guessing most NFL fans may feel the same way.