Magazine article USA TODAY

NFL Has New (Better!) Look. (Sports Scene)

Magazine article USA TODAY

NFL Has New (Better!) Look. (Sports Scene)

Article excerpt

WHEN NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYERS report to work this month for the start of the 2002-03 season, they will do so under a new alignment and scheduling procedure that is sure to earn rave reviews. The two-conference setup, in force since the NFL and American Football League merged for the 1970 season, remains intact, as does the fact that six teams from each conference will qualify for the postseason and a shot at the Super Bowl. With the addition of the expansion Houston Texans, however, the number of franchises now stands at 32, which conveniently divides into eight divisions of four clubs each. This replaces the three-division alignment that was born with the old merger. In both the American Football Conference and National Football Conference, the four division winners and two wild-card teams (those with the best non-first-place records) advance to the playoffs.

When the AFL and NFL became one, in order to numerically balance the newly formed conferences, three NFL clubs--the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Baltimore Colts--switched to the AFC. Back then, three division winners and one wild card from each conference made the playoffs. No team had switched conferences since--until now. The Seattle Seahawks, a 1976 expansion team entry, are moving from the AFC West to the NFC West, joining Arizona, St. Louis, and San Francisco.

Obviously, the math (eight times four equals 32) and geography (with only a few exceptions, the divisional designations of East, West, North, and South accurately reflect the teams' home venues) of the new setup were no-brainers, but where the owners really deserve credit is for the scheduling, in which 14 of the 16 regular-season games are common opponents for division foes. Each club has six games within the division (home and away against the three other members); four games against another division in its conference on a rotating three-year basis; and four games against a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle. The two remaining opponents will be based on the previous year's finish. For instance, the first-place team in an AFC division would play against two other AFC division winners, the second-place team against two other second-place clubs, etc. Under the previous system, four games were determined by the previous year's standings.

Moreover, all teams will play each other on a regular basis, home and away, eliminating many of the scheduling aberrations of the past. For example, Miami and Denver played just once between 1983 and 1997, when Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino and Bronco signal-caller John Elway, surefire Hall-of-Famers both, were in their prime. Green Bay and Washington, rivals since the mid 1930s, did not play each other from 1989 to 2000 and have not played in the nation's capital since 1979. Teams now are guaranteed to play all nondivision opponents in their conference at least once every three years, and at home at least once every six years. Every AFC team will play every NFC team once every four years, and at home once every eight years.

If there is a glitch--and we're not saying there is; we'll have to wait and see--it's that the division in which a team resides will be less of a factor in a team's win-loss record, since 10 of 16 games each year are against nondivision foes. This is a tough call. What's the point of breaking up into divisions if you're not going to play a heavily division-based schedule? One argument is that certain divisions are stronger than others, so teams have been penalized under the old system if they were in a tough division. …

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