New format leads meeting

3-23-01, 3 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

There is going to be a critical NFL owners meeting this year with ground-breaking action.

Except it won't be next week at the league's annual meeting in Palm Desert, Calif. It's going to be in May, when owners vote to re-align the NFL into four eight-team divisions to accommodate a 32nd team for the 2002 season.

But realignment will still be a hot topic in the desert and is on the agenda when the owners meet Monday through Wednesday with Bengals President Mike Brown hoping the core of the AFC Central remains intact when the discussions boil.

"There are no assurances," says Brown of the Bengals sticking with Cleveland and Pittsburgh in what might be called the AFC North.

"But that would be my preference. It's what we've done for 30 years. More than geography is involved. The foremost thing is keeping as much of the old rivalries as possible."

For the third straight year, the biggest item that will be voted on is instant replay. This time, the owners figure to it make more than a one-year experiment, and could make it permanent.

And for the third straight year, the Bengals will do their own instant replay and continue to be one of the only teams to fight it.

"It's been the Holy Grail of certain coaches for a long time," Brown said.

"One argument is no one should be fired because of a bad call. Then I look around the room and most of them have been fired at one time or another and it had nothing to do with a bad call. Should we legislate what their other problems were?

"We perpetuate in pretending there is no such thing as a call that's too close to be called," Brown said. "There is such a thing. In all sports. We feel it creates unnecessary delays in our game."

The NFL says replay was used 247 times in 248 games with 83 reversals and replays in 82 games.

"But everytime it's used," Brown said, "it takes three minutes. You get two or three in a game and that's a substantial amount of time."

The owners have to agree on realignment by June 1 and six of the divisions look to be set with two AFC divisions up in the air over where to put Baltimore and expansion Houston.

Which one should go in the AFC North with the Bengals and which should go in the AFC South with Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis?

The Bengals wanted Indianapolis or Tennessee (Nashville) because the cities are close enough so it could be a driving rivalry like Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But it doesn't appear to be headed that way and the Bengals don't seem to have a preference between Houston and Baltimore.

The Houston Texans want to go in with the Bengals, Steelers and Browns because of the old Houston Oiler rivalries from their days in the AFC Central. But Pittsburgh would like Baltimore for historical reasons and Baltimore has that natural rivalry with Cleveland.

"Players change, teams change, owners change," Brown said. "You can't base long-term decisions on what is going on now."

Here's a look at how six of the divisions figure to end up.

AFC East: New England, Miami, Buffalo, New York Jets.

AFC West: Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego, Denver.

NFC East: Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia, New York Giants.

NFC North: Minnesota, Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit.

NFC West: San Francisco, Arizona, St. Louis, Seattle.

NFC South: Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina.

The Bengals are pleased with the new scheduling format. Every team plays every other team at least once every four years and home-and-home at least once every eight years.

All but two of the 16 games are based on common opponents. The other two games are based on finish in the division, so teams would play two games a year against teams in their conference who finished in the same place in their respective divisions.

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