- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2001

As expected, the NFL announced yesterday that the games called off because of the devastating terrorist attacks on New York and Washington will be made up at the end of the season to allow for a full 16-game schedule.

However, in a surprising twist, the league has yet to reduce the number of playoff teams from 12 to eight as it searches for a way to play 11 playoff games in a shortened calendar. An NFL source said moving the Super Bowl back a week from its current Jan. 27 date remains a possibility despite the logistical problems it would present.

"It's the only decision," Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay said of a 16-game season. "If you played 15 games, some teams would have eight home games and some would have seven. Teams wouldn't play the same number of division games and conference games. The tiebreaker system wouldn't have produced a true champion."

The NFL did play a 15-game schedule in 1987 because of the players' strike, but Tennessee GM Floyd Reese said the use of replacement players for three weeks "threw everything so out of whack that any format could have been used and still been accepted."

Meanwhile, on the current replacement front, NFL sources said that the league and the officials' union were on the verge of an agreement that would secure the regulars' services through 2006 with an immediate 50 percent pay raise and more than 100 percent increase by the end of the deal. Apparently, the last remaining hurdle is the expected approval by a majority of the 119 officials. If approved, those officials would return to work on Sunday.

"If the deal is done, that's good news, but that really wasn't an issue for our team," said competition committee chairman McKay, who had no complaints about how the replacements officiated the Buccaneers' last preseason game or their regular season opener.

New York Giants GM Ernie Accorsi said that ending a labor dispute is always good news but agreed with McKay's take on the replacements.

"We played last Monday night so I was able to watch a lot of Sunday games and I thought the replacements officials were a non-factor," Accorsi said.

Scheduling equity was the biggest factor in choosing to restore a 16-game season and it will play a huge role in deciding the fairness of a format that would allow for three wild-card teams per conference even though the Jan. 5-6 wild-card weekend is now the last week of the regular season. A decision on the postseason is expected by the Oct. 30-31 owners' meetings.

"We believe that a full 16-game regular-season schedule is vital to our fans and the integrity of our season," commissioner Paul 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 competition committee was unanimous on that point. We continue to work on keeping six division winners, six wild cards and our entire postseason format intact. Several options have been presented to us in recent days that would help us accomplish that. We will review them and make a decision shortly. 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."

League sources said one of the radical options being considered is playing the final regular season games on Saturday and opening the playoffs the next Wednesday or Thursday.

"Given the choice of doing something like that or not making the playoffs, the choice is pretty obvious from a team standpoint, but we have to do what's best for the league," McKay said.

"If you had to play one game on a really short week, you'd put up with it," Accorsi said. "We've all played on Thanksgiving."

But Turkey Day games aren't win or go home and they're not followed by an even more pressure-packed game on perhaps another short week.

If the NFL goes with just one wild-card per conference, some quality teams will likely watch the playoffs on TV. If that format had been in place last season, Denver (11-5) and Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Indianapolis (all 10-6) would have missed the playoffs. Buffalo (1999), Green Bay (1998), Jacksonville (1997), Philadelphia (1992) and Dallas (1991) would have been the earlier 11-5 teams to have failed to qualify for postseason.

On the other hand, since the fifth and sixth wild cards were added in 1990, they've compiled a 10-34 playoff record and none has reached the Super Bowl. What's more, since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, no team has won the title without playing at least one home playoff game, a reward only the division winners and top wild card teams get under the current setup.

"Your goal should be to win the division anyway," Accorsi said.

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