ROSEMONT, Ill. - The new shape of the NFL will be determined this week. It probably will look a lot like the old NFL, before the merger more than three decades ago.
Team owners begin their regular spring meeting today with one major addition - realignment for the arrival of the new Houston franchise in 2002. As usual, the owners are waiting until the last minute: June 1 is the deadline for having the new 32-team, eight-division alignment set.
It shouldn't be too big of a problem.
The last realignment, in 1970, was difficult because three teams had to move from the NFL to the AFL in an era when there was less harmony. This change, based primarily on geography, shouldn't be as contentious.
"We know we're moving and we don't have a problem moving," Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy said. "We'll play where they tell us to play."
Each existing division will drop at least one team, and the AFC Central will drop two. That leads to the obvious advantage of a compacted division.
"It's easier to dominate a four-team division than a six-team division," Ravens owner Art Modell said.
There are seven realignment proposals that NFL owners have been studying, and the favorite is Option A-1. It leaves the historic nucleus of five current divisions intact including the NFC Central, which Dungy's Bucs will leave. That leaves the old pre-merger "Frostbite Division" of Chicago, Minnesota, Green Bay and Detroit.
Also likely to stay relatively intact are the NFC East (Dallas, the New York Giants, Washington and Philadelphia), the AFC East (Miami, the New York Jets, New England and Buffalo) and the AFC West (Kansas City, Oakland, Denver and probably San Diego), a throwback to old AFL days.
A fifth division, the AFC Central, will look very much the same: Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh will be together with either Indianapolis, Houston, Baltimore or Tennessee.
The biggest change could involve the Chargers or Seahawks.
Because Houston, an original AFL city, has been promised a spot in the AFC, one AFC team will have to move to the NFC. It could be San Diego, but it's most likely Seattle, on the premise that the Seahawks played a year in the NFC before switching over in 1977.
"There's a lot of sentiment to keep the original western teams of the AFL, going back to 1960, together in a western division, so that probably does indicate that Seattle would move into a new division," league commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in March.
Under the plan most likely to be adopted, the Seahawks would go to the NFC West with San Francisco, St. Louis and Arizona. The Cardinals aren't happy about losing Dallas, their only annual sellout, but don't seem to have much choice: The Cowboys and the other NFC East teams all have far more clout than Arizona owner Bill Bidwill, whose team is a consistent loser and has moved cities twice.
The other two divisions fall into place geographically.
Carolina and Atlanta, geographic anomalies in the NFC West, are likely to form the NFC South with New Orleans and Tampa Bay. The AFC South will include Jacksonville and whichever team from among the Colts, Texans, Ravens and Titans doesn't go into the Central.
The new scheduling format ensures that every team meets every other team in the league at least once every four years. There will be six division games - home-and-home - plus games against one division from the AFC and one from the NFC on a rotating basis.
The other two games will be within the conference based on the previous season's standings: one vs. one, two vs. two, etc.
There are about a dozen variations of the basic plan still under consideration. The owners probably will eliminate some today, go on to other business and take the final vote Thursday. A 75 percent vote is needed - 24 of 32 teams - with Tagliabue holding proxies surrendered by the Rams, Oilers (now Titans) and Browns (now Ravens) when they moved, plus expansion Houston.
Tagliabue has said he hasn't decided what to do with the extra votes, but may cast them or give them back to the teams.
Twelve teams will qualify for the playoffs - four division-winners and two wild cards in each conference.
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