NFL elects to play 16-game schedule

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

The NFL will go with a 16-game schedule, making up the games lost last weekend on Jan. 6. But the league is still considering ways to have full 12- team playoffs.

"We believe that a full 16-game regular-season schedule is vital to our fans and the integrity of our season," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "Each team needs to be guaranteed the same number of home and away games plus an equal number of divisional games. The NFL Competition Committee was unanimous on that point."

Tagliabue said the committee was studying ways to get 12 teams into the playoffs, even though the second week's games will be played on what would have been wild-card weekend, Jan. 7. Without a week off before the Super Bowl, that would be hard.

"If we cannot resolve our entire postseason lineup in a satisfactory fashion, we then will go to a system of six division winners and two wild-card teams for this one season only," he said.

The league had been considering two options -- playing just 15 games and keeping the 12-team playoff format, or retaining the 16-game schedule.

From the start, there appeared to be more sentiment toward retaining the full slate of games, shifting those called off last week after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington to the weekend originally scheduled for wild-card games.

There were several reasons for avoiding a reduced schedule, including the fact that San Diego, last week's bye team, would have played 16 games -- one more than the other 30 teams.

The league also wanted to provide each team with eight home games and eight away games, feeling that was important for competitive balance and because half the teams would lose the money from a home game.

As for the change in the playoffs, no team seeded lower than fourth has made it to a championship game since Jacksonville upset Buffalo and Denver to reach the AFC title game after the 1996 season. And only one has made it to a Super Bowl -- New England after the 1985 season, when there were just two wild-card teams per conference.

But it could have an impact on some of the NFL's strongest teams -- particularly in the AFC.

Each AFC division appears to have two strong teams: Miami and Indianapolis in the East; Baltimore and Tennessee in the Central; and Oakland and Denver in the West. Recent history shows there is at least one sleeper every year that turns 180 degrees from a horrible season -- San Diego, 1-15 last season, opened with a 30-3 win over Washington.

With only one wild-card team per conference, the division races become far more important. Tennessee's opening-week loss to Miami might be pivotal if the two contend for a wild card spot. The situation also is complicated by Tennessee and Baltimore, two of the top three or four teams in the NFL, playing in the same division.

In the NFC, the reduction in wild-card teams probably means the Giants or Eagles would have to win the East to make the playoffs. Each will have to sweep the Redskins, Cardinals and Cowboys, all of whom seem to be among the league's weakest teams, then at least split against each other.

Raiders defensive end Trace Armstrong, president of the NFL Players Association, said the majority of those he talked to favor the modified playoffs rather than a shortened 15-game schedule.

"I think just about everyone is leaning toward a 16-game schedule," he said.

There are many strange twists to the new schedule.

Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and New Orleans will be off next weekend, and Arizona, which was off the first week of the regular season, hasn't played since its last exhibition game Aug. 31. That will make it 24 days without a game when the Cardinals face Denver in Tempe on Sunday night.

The Steelers, Saints, Bucs and Lions won't have home games until the fifth weekend, with Detroit playing St. Louis on Monday night that week. That's particularly disappointing to Pittsburgh, which had been scheduled to open brand-new Heinz Field on Sunday night.

The new schedule is jut one facet of the new NFL, changed drastically by the terrorist bombings in New York and Washington.

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