It took several meetings to agree upon the right proposal, but the NFL owners needed less time than it takes to order a cup of coffee to approve a realignment plan that will begin next year with the arrival of the expansion Houston Texans. The owners unanimously passed the first of seven potential options at the spring meetings in Chicago on May 22 and, as expected, the Patriots will be losing the Indianapolis Colts as a division rival.
The new AFC East division will still have a familiar look with Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets remaining with the Patriots in one of the eight, four-team divisions making up the 32-team league. The Colts will move to the AFC South with Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee, meaning Belichick will not have to deal with preparing for the Colts young guns Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison twice a year.
Under the new format, each team will play a home-and-home series against its division rivals plus another division from each conference. The remaining two games will be determined by order of finish. For example, the third place team in the AFC East would play the third place teams from the other two divisions in the AFC not already on the schedule.
The playoff format has yet to be decided, although the owners currently plan to keep the 12-team setup in use today. Rather than three division winners and three wild cards per conference, the NFL would simply shift that to four division winners and two wild cards. There is a possibility the league could add two wild card teams to the mix, allowing 14 of 32 teams to qualify for postseason play, but that decision has yet to be made.
The lone team asked to make a major shift was Seattle. The Seahawks switched conferences, moving from the AFC West to the NFC West, joining Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco. Seattle actually entered the NFL in 1976 as a member of the NFC West but changed to the AFC a year later, where it remained until now.
Head Coach Mike Holmgren and President Bob Whitsitt originally balked at the move, but Commissioner Paul Tagliabue convinced the owners last January to pool visiting-team revenue equally so realignment wouldn't hurt any team where it mattered most — in the pocketbook.