Column: Virus finds its way into the NFL playoff picture

The Las Vegas Raiders were feeling pretty good about themselves after beating Denver on Sunday to keep their playoff hopes intact. In a city built on losers they were suddenly looking a lot like winners, thanks to a defense that allowed only 27 points in its last two games.

Then a big chunk of that defense went into COVID-19 protocol and all bets were off.

Hard to feel sorry for the Raiders, who took advantage of COVID outbreaks on opposing teams just to get in playoff contention at 8-7. And their opponent this week, the Indianapolis Colts, have even more issues, with quarterback Carson Wentz — who is not vaccinated — joining six others Tuesday on the protocol list.

Making the playoffs and advancing to the Super Bowl used to be an easy equation. Ride a hot quarterback or a stifling defense, play hard-nosed football and take advantage of the breaks that inevitably come your way.

But with COVID raging through the league, it may come down to something even more simple: The teams that find the best ways to deal with the virus will likely end up in Los Angeles in February.

That might mean an untested rookie being thrown in at quarterback because no one else was left, as the Saints were forced to do in a loss to Miami that was as unwatchable as Monday Night Football can be. It might mean tossing away a game plan days before a crucial game because the players who would have executed that plan were not available.

It might mean going without a big chunk of your defense into a must-win game. And it might mean losing your quarterback just when he is needed the most.

Not the best way to crown a Super Bowl champion, that’s for sure. Not the best product to put on prime time TV, either, as evidenced by the Saints-Dolphins game and the Dallas-Washington matchup that preceded it the night before.

Unfortunately, even the NFL can’t solve this. Short of canceling games — something that hasn’t happened all season and won’t happen now — there’s not a lot the league can do to contain omicron.

On Monday night, the Saints played without a third of their team with 16 active players sidelined. The same day a dubious record was set, with more than 100 players across the league put into COVID protocols.

“This is something every team is dealing with,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said before the Wentz news was announced. “We’ll continue to deal with it in a responsible manner – always the next-man-up mentality. We talked about it as a team last week, every man in this building needs to be ready to play winning football.”

The NFL is not alone, of course. The virus is wreaking havoc in the NBA and causing games to be postponed in the NHL. The college bowl season is taking a big hit, with games called off and teams switching bowls as others drop out.

But the NFL has a reputation to protect and its credibility to uphold. And playing Monday night in New Orleans did little to enhance either.

The Saints were so decimated by COVID that they had little chance to even be competitive with, much less beat, a Miami team that had won six in a row. In a game critical to the playoff chances of both teams, the Saints started a fourth-round pick at quarterback who had never played a down in a regular-season game.

With an offensive line crippled by COVID and injuries, the results were predictable. Ian Book was sacked eight times in a 20-3 loss for a team that deserved better.

“Just keeping him upright tonight was a challenge,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, at least not this season. After escaping huge outbreaks last year, the NFL — like everyone — was blindsided by the omicron variant racing through locker rooms.

But the NFL can’t contain omicron and it can’t force players like Wentz and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers to do the right thing for their teammates and get vaccinated.

The product is hurting, and the playoffs are threatening to become way too random. The league is barreling into the postseason with no guarantee that an outbreak might suddenly turn the playoffs into a real free-for-all.

COVID is on the march once again, and it’s even more unpredictable than before.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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