NFL owners approve playoff changes after cancelled Bills-Bengals game

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NFL owners voted on Friday to approve a possible change to this year’s playoff format, allowing for a neutral-site AFC championship game if the participants were affected by Monday's cancelled game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.

The ruling comes a day after the proposed changes were approved by the league's competition committee.

Monday's game between the Bills and Bengals was suspended after Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field and needed to be resuscitated, shocking the sporting world and leaving the NFL with questions about how to proceed.

On Thursday, the NFL said it would not finish the game and officially ruled it as a no contest, leaving the Bills and Bengals – both AFC contenders – with one fewer game played than the rest of the league.

If Cincinnati or Buffalo qualify for the AFC Championship game as the road team and could have been the home team with one more win, this new provision would move the game to a neutral site.

The rule also allows for a coin flip to decide the host of a potential Wild Card round game between the Bengals (11-4) and Baltimore Ravens (10-6) if the Ravens win the matchup between the teams in the regular-season finale on Sunday.

The new procedures are not without controversy and have already received some criticism from fans of the Kansas City Chiefs (13-3), who can secure the AFC's top seed and first-round bye with a Week 18 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. There are scenarios, however, in which the Chiefs would lose the right to host an AFC title game at Arrowhead Stadium against the Bills (12-3).

The league's policy manual says that "a team's standing in its division or in its conference” is to be decided by winning percentage in the case of a disparity in games played, but the league deemed Monday's cancellation extraordinary enough to warrant a new ruling.

It is the first time since 1935 that NFL teams will have played different numbers of games in a season, leaving no modern precedent on which the league could lean.

While the NFL has been tweaking its playoff format, Hamlin has gradually made progress during his four days at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Hamlin, whose heart was re-started twice Monday, is now able to breathe on his own and had his breathing tube removed overnight. The 24-year-old even joined his team-mates briefly on a video call Friday with a simple message: “Love you boys.”

In a Friday statement, the Bills said Hamlin's "neurologic function remains intact and he has been able to talk to his family and care team."