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Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak presents the NFL with a real test

The Tennessee Titans line up against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in Minneapolis.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

The NFL news out of Tennessee on Tuesday — that three Titans players and five other members of the team tested positive for COVID-19 — quickly morphed into a test of the league’s flexibility, creativity and resolve.

It was a code red for a league that had enjoyed three uninterrupted weeks of football, a somewhat surprising development in a sport where social distancing is impossible and players are not sequestered.

Both the Titans and the Minnesota Vikings, who played each other Sunday, announced they were immediately suspending all in-person activities at their facilities this week in an abundance of caution.

But time is of the essence, because both teams need to practice and prepare for their Sunday games. The Titans host Pittsburgh in a showdown of undefeated teams and the Vikings play at Houston, with each team looking for its first victory.

Three Tennessee players were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday afternoon: defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, long snapper Beau Brinkley and practice squad tight end Tommy Hudson. Outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen did not travel with the team because of COVID-19 protocol, which sidelines staff who either test positive or are exposed to someone who has.

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First of all, there are no tidy solutions for moving Minnesota’s game at Houston, so it helps that no Vikings have tested positive so far.

There is more wiggle room with Pittsburgh-Tennessee. The league’s first choice, of course, is to keep the game on the schedule for Sunday. But how much time do the Titans need to adequately prepare? In these high-intensity weeks, every lost minute counts.

There is the possibility the game could be played Monday night. The league has made those moves before when games have been disrupted by hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.

The Chargers’ defense has been doing its job keeping opponents out of the end zone but has made it harder on the offense with some untimely mistakes.

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Playing Tuesday is also an option, something the NFL did in 2010 when a massive snowstorm in Philadelphia caused the league to postpone a Vikings-Eagles game for two days. Then again, Tuesday games impinge on the following week of preparation. Both the Steelers (vs. Philadelphia) and Titans (vs. Buffalo) have home games in Week 5.

Another option is postponing Steelers-Titans a few weeks. Tennessee is off in Week 7 — when Pittsburgh is playing Baltimore — and the Steelers have Week 8 off.

The NFL could make this week the week off for both Pittsburgh and Tennessee, reschedule their game for Week 7 and move Steelers-Ravens to Week 8.

On paper, that’s a convenient solution. In reality, it’s a mess that could really hurt both the Steelers and Titans.

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First of all, that decision would have to happen immediately. The league can’t tell these teams on Friday or Saturday that this is their week off. That would be like getting no week off at all. Surely, the NFL Players Assn. would not be on board with an 11th-hour decision like that which would rob players of the rest they were counting on.

Besides, no team wants its week off this early in the season. And particularly not two undefeated teams that have every intention of playing deep into January. That would make a marathon of a season that much longer. Imagine the double-whammy of getting an abbreviated week off and having it this early in the year.

Further complicating that, this season’s expanded playoff format dictates that only the No. 1 seed in each conference gets a postseason bye. Basically, almost no one gets a breather.

Patrick Mahomes put on a scintillating show while outperforming Lamar Jackson, and the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Baltimore Ravens 34-20.

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There’s also the possibility of putting one or more games on a to-be-played list, and tying those loose ends in a Week 18 tacked onto the end of the regular season. The playoffs could be bumped back a week, which would be much less of a hassle with no spectators at games.

If there’s any good news for the league it’s that this problem arose early in the season, before teams have started to get their weeks off. If this were to happen a few weeks from now, when they were underway, the situation would be even more complex.

At this point, abundance of options isn’t a problem for the league. Time is.


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