Bengals Centrally located

3-27-01, 9:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PALM DESERT, Calif. _ Paul and Mike Brown thought it would happen and hoped it would happen from nearly the time the Bengals were founded 35 years and six NFL franchises ago.

On Tuesday, here at its annual meeting, the NFL crept ever closer to its realignment of eight divisions with four teams each in an effort to balance the schedule and the country.

With Bengals President Mike Brown breathing a sigh of relief with the first concrete evidence his club will stay with Cleveland and Pittsburgh, he remembered those early days as he ducked back into the afternoon session.

"The schedule is great. It's what we thought about way back because the idea was getting to 32 teams with the four-team divisions," Brown said. "We've come so far, there was a time you thought we'd never get to 32 teams. But here we are."

There are still plenty of problems to solve before the June 1 drop dead date to pass the format for the 2002 season that accommodates the expansion Houston Texans. There were seven plans handed out to the media Tuesday, and another five or so that could still be debated. Plus, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue isn't even sure how he'll use his four proxy votes that were ceded to the league when the Rams, Titans, and Ravens moved and the Texans were formed.

The league is shooting for approval at its annual spring meeting May 22-23 in Chicago. It's even unknown if there'll be a special one day meeting early in May.

But one thing is fairly certain. All seven plans keep Cincinnati with Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the new AFC North. Four of the scenarios have Baltimore as the fourth team, the leading option that is being pushed by powerful Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

The other three plans put Houston, or Indianapolis, and Tennessee with the Big Three, with the other leading possibility Houston.

Brown doesn't object to any of the clubs. Although it looks like his top two choices _ Indy and Tennessee – are headed to the AFC South with antsy Jacksonville and a team to be named later.

"I want a piece of your new stadium," said Ravens owner Art Modell to Rooney. "Dan is my confidant in that division. We should stick together, the four of us. It's the least disruptive move. . . .You can't start from scratch."

Houston owner Bob McNair certainly doesn't want to. He's lobbying for the Texans to re-join the Bengals, Browns and Steelers in the division where the Oilers played for a generation before moving to Tennessee in 1997.

"That makes a lot of sense, but we're for what is ever best for the league," McNair said. "I like the format. It's fair for everyone."

The format is the reason McNair says, "it's not the end of the world,' if Houston ends up in an AFC South with Indy, Jacksonville and Tennessee.

The new schedule calls for each team to play four non-division teams in their conference, and 14 games are determined by common opponents.

So teams are guaranteed playing at least once every four years and home-and-home every eight years.

"I don't know if it's developed that far," said McNair of the prospects of playing in the AFC South. But he admitted Houston-Tennessee is a natural rivalry.

So is Indianapolis-Tennessee with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning a Tennessee icon after his college career.

The Bengals caution against trying to invent long-term rivalries with short-term elements such as players and balance of power. For instance, Colts owner Jim Irsay doesn't want to go into a so-called "Super," southern division of Jacksonville, Baltimore, and Tennessee.

"I don't think it's healthy for the short term to put four playoff teams in the same division," Irsay said.

Plus, there's still the bitterness in Baltimore over the Colts' departure nearly 20 years ago. Indy has indicated it favors Houston over Baltimore and wouldn't mind the Manning angle to fuel a new rivalry with the Titans. And there's the football feud between Florida (Jacksonville) and Tennessee.

But not so fast. With Jacksonville looking unable to secure its first choice of ending up in a division with Miami, it wants to stay put with AFC Central rivals Baltimore and Tennessee.

"That's why we think the compromise teams are Baltimore and Houston," Rooney said.

One league official mused this week that the fourth AFC North team could get pulled out of a hat. But Rooney said, "I hope not. It shouldn't have to come down to that."

Indeed, most of the teams seem to be playing ball, such as Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are moving out of the NFC Central with Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota to start life in a NFC South most likely composed of Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans.

"That's a fact of life," said Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay. "We were the last one in (the NFC Central) and should be the last one out. And the way it looks like it will work, our fans will be able to drive."

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