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NFL Completes Regular Season During The Pandemic And Heads Into Playoffs

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was surprising, to say the least, but somehow, some way, the NFL completed its regular season during a pandemic. COVID did force a bunch of postponements and creative rescheduling, but every team played every game on its slate - all 256 of them.

How did the league do it without putting every team in a bubble? And how will the league keep this going through the playoffs, which start tomorrow? Well, for that, we turn now to Lindsay Jones. She covers the NFL for The Athletic. Welcome.

LINDSAY JONES: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being here. What did the NFL do right and where do you think it came up short?

JONES: You know, the NFL was very committed to making this season happen. And, as you mentioned, they were not going to operate in a bubble the way that the NBA, the WNBA or the NHL did. So a couple of the really important pieces to this program have been the testing side, where the NFL has gone through daily testing for all team employees.

And the other really important side of this has been their contact tracing process. There was very aggressive contact tracing, mandatory five-day isolation for anybody who was deemed to be a high-risk close contact. That was really what enabled the league to keep their season on track without any cancellations.

CHANG: What could the league have done better, you think?

JONES: Well, I think they - you know, they learned along the way. I mean, I think there were multiple instances throughout this year where they realized that there were protocol breakdowns. And then I would say the other thing has been the decision to allow some of these stadiums to host fans. It's been kind of in line with the way that different states and different local municipalities have been handling this pandemic.

CHANG: Right.

JONES: So you've seen a lot of stadiums that have been completely empty week after week. And then you've seen other places - including some places that are going to be hosting playoff games either this week or in coming weeks - that have had 5,000, 10,000 or even 30,000 fans in the stadium in Dallas.

CHANG: OK. So looking ahead to this weekend and the playoffs, we see the Cleveland Browns will be playing their first playoff game in 18 years. And they'll be doing it without at least - what? - four players and the head coach, Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID. Their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers is still scheduled for Sunday night, for now. But what happens, Lindsay, if that game or if multiple games during the playoffs have to be rescheduled? I mean, I could see the playoffs turning into an absolute mess really quickly, right?

JONES: Well, that is the million-dollar question that nobody has a great answer to because what we saw through the regular season was they did have these contingency plans in place that required a lot of creative rescheduling. It's very much unclear right now if any of those same contingency plans would be in place for the postseason.

This week, specifically, if the Browns-Steelers game couldn't be played, could they push a playoff game to a Tuesday afternoon? Then you start getting into all these questions about competitive balance and would it be fair to have a team - whoever won that game - have to play their divisional-round game on a short week when their opponent would have had an entire week to rest and prepare?

Or what might happen if a marquee player - a guy like Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes - what if he were all of a sudden unavailable because of COVID? Would they make these teams play on the way that they made, for example, the Denver Broncos play a game without all of their quarterbacks during the regular season? Would they be willing to do that...

CHANG: Yeah.

JONES: ...To one of their marquee players, marquee markets and one of their biggest games of the year?

CHANG: Lindsay Jones covers the NFL for The Athletic. Thank you so much for joining us today.

JONES: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.