Baltimore joins Bengals in AFC North

5-22-01, 11:45 a.m.

Updated: 5-22-01, 12:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ROSEMONT, Ill. _ The NFL owners unanimously approved a 32-team realignment with Super Bowl champion Baltimore joining the Bengals, Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the AFC North.

Steelers President Dan Rooney said Tuesday morning the NFL owners could strike quickly if they resolved two issues, one of which was which team would join, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the eight-division, four-team lineup that begins play in 2002.

The other issue, which team would move from the AFC West to the NFC West, was resolved when Seattle moved in with Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco. San Diego stayed in the AFC West with Oakland, Denver and Kansas City.

The Ravens form the new AFC North with the core of the AFC Central, but several issues had to be dealt with first, as evidenced by before the meeting during a straw poll in the lobby of an O'Hare Airport hotel.

The main question was how to handle Indianapolis moving out of the AFC East.

The Colts ended up moving to the power-packed AFC South of Jacksonville, Tennessee and expansion Houston.

But not before:

_Bengals President Mike Brown agreed with the current Bengals.com fan poll and supported Indianapolis joining Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But he would have accepted Baltimore, Houston, or Tennessee.

_Rooney pushed for Baltimore to come in with the Bengals, Browns and Steelers because of historical connections and driving distance.

_Houston owner Bob McNair wanted his expansion team in the AFC North so the city can bask in the defunct Oilers' old rivalries. Even though he admitted Houston "isn't even in North Texas. But if Dallas is in the NFC East. . ."

Yet McNair, who owns a Triple Crown stakes horse, figures it was a long shot against Baltimore and thought the new Texans could end up in the AFC South's "Super

Division," of Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis

_Tennessee owner Bud Adams, who moved the Oilers from Houston to Nashville five years ago, also wanted his Titans to stay in the AFC North because of the current AFC Central rivalries.

The Bengals would welcome Tennessee before Houston and Baltimore, but Adams also said he doesn't think other Central teams would go for the Titans. If he couldn't go North, Adams would have voted for Indianapolis to go in the North while the Titans go in the AFC South with Houston, Jacksonville and Baltimore.

The problem is, Adams, along with the re-located owners of St. Louis, Houston and Baltimore, didn't have a vote. Those four votes belonged to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and he swung them to the majority.

"If it gets to a close vote, to get a deal done the vote will be what's best for the league," Adams said. "Either way, it's all right with me."

Adams, who originally didn't want to play Houston twice a year and travel to the city where he still lives once a year, apparently felt the shift of the membership that wanted him south.

"It would be a good rivalry," Adams said of Houston-Tennessee.

Rivalries are why McNair wanted to hook up Houston with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh because his fans died with those matchups in the AFC Central of the '70s, '80s and early '90s.

"I don't have a problem with that if they put Tennessee in the North, but some in the old AFC Central won't like that," McNair said.

He's leery of going into a playoff division boasting the Jaguars, Colts and Titans.

"The only point I'm making is that we're the weakest team in the league ending up in the strongest division," McNair said. "At least make sure we've got some players so we can compete. That's all we want to do.

"We're sort of cannon fodder for the next coupe of years," McNair said. "Everybody wants us. All we want is some players."

Although there is the feeling of a quick resolution Tuesday, McNair echoes how hard it really is.

"Not everyone," McNair said, "will be satisfied."

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