League may keep wild card

16 games preserved

playoff options mulled

September 19, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The NFL rescheduled its Week 2 postponements for wild-card weekend yesterday, but did not scrap the wild-card round just yet.

Electing to preserve the integrity of a 16-game schedule, the league began to explore its options for a full 12-team playoff format.

Those options call for drastic measures. Among them are moving Super Bowl XXXVI back a week to Feb. 3, moving it out of New Orleans altogether, or holding the wild-card and divisional playoffs just four days apart.

Still a possibility - perhaps the most likely possibility - is reducing the playoff field from 12 to eight and eliminating the wild-card round.

One week after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that precipitated the Week 2 postponements, commissioner Paul Tagliabue determined that playing 16 games was more important than the alternatives.

"We believe that a full 16-game regular-season schedule is vital to our fans and the integrity of our season," Tagliabue said in a statement. "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 league was reviewing several options and would make a decision shortly, although no time frame was given.

"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.

Fourteen of the 15 postponed games will be made up on the weekend of Jan. 5-6, which previously had been scheduled for the wild-card round of the playoffs. The Ravens' Monday night game against Minnesota will be played on Monday, Jan. 7.

After that, it's guesswork.

The league's regular season started one week later than usual this season, eliminating the off week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. If there is no wild-card round, the league will cut two wild-card entries from each conference and reduce the number of playoff teams from 12 to eight.

To squeeze the wild-card round in would require extraordinary changes.

League spokesman Greg Aiello yesterday identified the three proposals that would salvage the 12-team playoff format:

Move the Super Bowl back a week, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 3.

Play the wild-card games on Wednesday, Jan. 9, and the divisional round on Sunday and Monday, Jan. 13-14.

Play the conference championship games at the Louisiana Superdome as a doubleheader on Jan. 27, and play the Super Bowl a week later at another location.

The logistics of changing the date of the Super Bowl in New Orleans are considerable. The Superdome will be host to a national automobile dealers' convention the next week, and hotel availability would be extremely tight to hold the Super Bowl at the same time.

It is possible the car dealers might be willing to switch, which would be the best-case scenario for the NFL.

Playing the wild-card games on Jan. 9 would create a potential scheduling nightmare. That would require teams to play two playoff games in four or five days. If one of the wild-card teams happened to be the Ravens or Vikings, the Monday night opponents on Jan. 7, it would mean one day of rest and possibly three games in eight days.

Playing a doubleheader of conference championship games would require little more than the promise of another Super Bowl for New Orleans to replace this one.

No league owners want to see two wild-card berths cut from each conference, mostly out of self-interest. Under the eight-team format, the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins would have missed the playoffs a year ago in the AFC. One week into the season, there appear to be two strong playoff candidates in each division - the Ravens and Tennessee Titans in the Central, the Indianapolis Colts and Miami in the East, and the Oakland Raiders and Denver in the West.

Although wild-card teams have won two of the past four Super Bowls (the Ravens and the 1997 Broncos), they were both No. 4 seeds. Since the league adopted the 12-team playoff format in 1990, only two teams seeded lower than fourth have advanced to conference championship games - the 1995 Colts and the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars. Neither reached the Super Bowl.

Only one team seeded lower than fourth has made the Super Bowl. And that was the fifth-seeded New England Patriots in 1985, when the league had just two wild cards a conference.

By rescheduling the Week 2 games, the NFL avoided a rebate on television revenue. Losing the wild-card round would mean a refund for ABC, which televises the two Saturday wild-card games.

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