Powers in AFC Central can write their own ticket

On The NFL

September 19, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

The NFL, in effect, spun off a small subsidiary this year -- the AFC Central Division.

When it became the only six-team division with the addition of Cleveland, the AFC Central became its own little domain.

The six teams will play 10 division games a year and 30 of their 48 games the next three years against the other five teams in the division. By contrast, they'll play only 18 games against the other 25 teams.

"It's bad from a marketing standpoint because the fans don't see many other teams," said Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Rooney is leading the drive to realign the league into eight four-team divisions when -- and if -- the league adds a 32nd team.

For the Steelers, though, there are some advantages to this cozy, six-team arrangement, which is why their game with the Ravens today has a lot of significance.

If the Steelers win today, they'll have opened the season with victories on the road against the Browns and Ravens. If they would then beat both teams at home for a 4-0 sweep, they'd only have to play .500 in the other 12 games -- including two against the Bengals -- to finish 10-6 and most likely make the playoffs.

Jacksonville would have the same advantage if it sweeps all four games, which shouldn't be hard. The Jaguars have never lost to the Ravens, and Cleveland appears to be an inept expansion team. Even Tennessee might pull it off and use it as a ticket to the playoffs -- if quarterback Neil O'Donnell can be effective filling in for the injured Steve McNair.

Meanwhile, in the AFC East, where all five teams (Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Bills and even the Colts) seem to be more evenly matched, the teams are more likely to knock each other off. It's unlikely any team can get a 4-0 sweep against two other division rivals.

This would give the Steelers, Jaguars and possibly the Titans an advantage in the battle for playoff berths and home-field edges.

If that's the way it turns out, Rooney will use that as a selling point in his attempt to get 23 votes for his plan to have eight, four-team divisions. Getting 23 votes for any measure is never easy in the NFL, and Rooney needs all the arguments he can get.

Which is why today's game could be a two-for-one deal for Rooney. A victory would give Rooney's team an express lane to the playoffs and an argument that if the league goes to 32 teams, it should have eight four-team divisions instead of four five-team divisions and two six-team divisions.

Broken deadlines

Back in March, the NFL appeared to announce that if it didn't have a deal to expand to Los Angeles by Sept. 15, it would then award the team to Houston.

The deadline passed last week, but in the NFL, deadlines are made to be broken. The league now points out that in the fine print, the deal was only done on a conditional basis.

The league not only hasn't ruled out Los Angeles, but also has made it clear that it doesn't have to expand if proposed Houston owner Bob McNair doesn't meet its price.

McNair wants to pay $500 million, slightly above the $476 million that Cleveland owner Al Lerner paid. The league wants something like $750 million because Washington was sold for $800 million, never mind that the Redskins were a special case because they have more than 200 luxury boxes and 15,000 club seats.

McNair has to decide if he'll make a counteroffer in the $600 million range even though he won't get a return on his investment for a long time at that price.

There is some pressure on the league, though, to make a deal because the current 31-team setup means at least one team has a bye every week. San Diego had the first bye last week and leads the AFC West with an 0-0 record because the other four division teams lost their openers.

Where's Barry?

Say it ain't so, Barry. Or at least say something.

Barry Sanders is making no comments even though his agent is now saying he'll repay the money left on his signing bonus if the Detroit Lions will release him to play with another team.

The Lions aren't going to release him. Even Sanders' father said he wouldn't release Sanders if he had him under contract.

Meanwhile, Green Bay's Brett Favre, who takes on the Lions today, is suggesting they could be tougher to beat without Sanders.

"I know people laugh sometimes and say, `How can that be?' But other players all of a sudden say, `We can't rely on Barry Sanders. We have to step up and make plays,' " he said. "I expect Detroit to be better. I really do."

The Lions, though, still aren't giving him up. Sanders has to realize that if he wants to play this year, it'll be in Detroit.

Replay woes

Sure enough, it only took one week for the officials to overturn a correct call on the field with the new replay system.

Oddly, the ruling favored the New York Giants, who had four replay calls incorrectly go against them in the preseason. They gave up a completed pass to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to have a replay official incorrectly overturn it.

The rock in Detroit

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