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NFL to stick with 16-game schedule

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NEW YORK — Imagine a doubleheader at the New Orleans Superdome on what was supposed to be Super Bowl Sunday — both conference championships in one stadium in one day.

Or imagine the regular season ending Jan. 6 and playoffs beginning Jan. 9, with some teams potentially playing three games in eight days.

Those are two scenarios put forth by the NFL when it announced Tuesday that it will play a full 16-game schedule while still trying to cram the usual 12 teams into the playoffs instead of reducing the field to eight teams.

"Hopefully, they can find a way to get all the games in," said New Orleans general manager Randy Mueller, whose team is one of many contenders that could miss an eight-team playoff.

"It would not come without some hardships. It might require playing the games in 14 days or 10 days. It's hard, but the Canadian league does it. I don't know if the players would support that, but I know our players want to go to the playoffs."

"I'll be curious to see what follows after this," added Andy Reid of Philadelphia, another team that might be affected. "I'd hate to disrupt the playoffs in that situation. . . . I'm sure they'll come up with an answer for it. They understand the importance of the playoffs."

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the league's competition committee voted unanimously to keep the 16-game format, switching the games called off last weekend to the weekend of Jan. 5-7, when wild card games had been scheduled.

But he said the committee is still looking at ways to keep three division winners and three wild card teams in each conference rather than the three winners and just one wild card.

When the teams return, they are likely to have the regular officials back.

NFL sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the executive committee of the NFL Referees Association was taking an e-mail ballot on a proposal by the league that would end the lockout. The work stoppage lasted through the final game of preseason and the first game of the regular season.

If the proposal is approved by noon EDT Wednesday, the regular officials will be back for Sunday's games.

As for the playoffs, Tagliabue said:

"We continue to work on keeping six division winners, six wild cards and our entire postseason format intact. Several options have been presented to us in recent days that would help us accomplish that. If we cannot resolve our entire postseason lineup in a satisfactory fashion, we then will go to a system of six division winners and two wild card teams for this one season only."

One option would be to move the Super Bowl, to be played in New Orleans, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 3. There is only a one-week break this year after the championship games.

One way to do that would be to switch the Super Bowl and the National Auto Dealers Convention, scheduled for the next week. The Pro Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 4, would either be moved back a week or played without players from Super Bowl teams.

Another option would be to schedule most of the potential playoff teams for Saturday, Jan. 5, then play the wild card games on Wednesday Jan. 9. The next round would be played Jan. 13-14 with the championship games as scheduled on Jan. 20 — most likely with four exhausted teams.

A third would be to play the conference title games on Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 27, as a doubleheader at the Superdome. The Super Bowl would be played the next week at another site, with New Orleans promised another game in the future.

The 16-game season appeared to be a certainty soon after Tagliabue announced last Thursday that last week's games were off because of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

One reason is financial. If the league played 15 games, 15 teams would have played seven home games instead of eight, missing out on one lucrative gate. And the league would owe the networks $40 million-$60 million for the wild card games that would not be played if the alternate scenarios don't work out.

Another was practical. San Diego was scheduled off last week. So the Chargers would have ended the season having played 16 games, while the others would have played 15.

And a third seemed to be that most players and coaches wanted a full schedule.

But the players and coaches also want a full playoff schedule.

"If they can keep the 16-game schedule and the six wild cards, then everybody's happy," Green Bay coach Mike Sherman said.

"It's just back to business."