Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sweet Sixteen

The NFL reschedules its postponed games for January, ensuring a 16-game schedule, and doesn’t rule out keeping 12 playoff spots

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Bucs General Manager Rich McKay and Head Coach Tony Dungy were in agreement that the 16-game schedule was the only logical decision

In the wake of the postponement of last weekend's National Football League games, it appeared that the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania had forced the league into a tough decision.

With the rest of the pre-Super Bowl schedule tight, common thinking was the NFL would have to choose between the lesser of two evils: either play a 15-game regular season or reduce the playoff field by four teams. However, the league came through with half of the answer on that issue Tuesday and didn't rule out a final solution that would avoid both of those unsatisfying options.

The NFL playing schedule that was postponed this past weekend will be played on the weekend of January 5-7 to retain a 16-game regular-season schedule, the league announced on Tuesday.

"We believe that a full 16-game regular-season schedule is vital to our fans and the integrity of our season," said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "Each team needs to be guaranteed the same number of home and away games plus an equal number of divisional games. The NFL Competition Committee was unanimous on that point."

Since that weekend was originally slated to hold the Wild Card round of playoffs, a plan eliminating two Wild Card teams in each conference had been discussed, thereby putting the schedule back on track the following weekend in the Divisional Round. That option didn't delight the Competition Committee, of which Buccaneers General Manager Rich McKay is a co-chairman, but it was considered much better than the alternative.

"I think it's the only equitable decision, given the problems that a 15-game schedule would create," said McKay. "I certainly hope that we don't lose playoff teams, but if we do I still think it would be the best way to go, given the inequities created by a 15-game schedule."

As McKay's words indicate, the league has not conceded that the rescheduling of the games for the weekend of January 5-7 automatically forces the NFL into an eight-team playoff field. That part of the decision has been delayed as the league looks into alternate possibilities.

"We continue to work on keeping six division winners, six Wild Cards and our entire postseason format intact," said Tagliabue. "Several options have been presented to us in recent days that would help us accomplish that. We will review them and make a decision shortly. 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.

"Meanwhile, we wanted to confirm the 16-game schedule at this point so that our fans and teams could count on a full regular season."

Added McKay: "I don't know whether it's feasible or not, but there are some other things we'll discuss over the next couple weeks that would involve some unique scheduling approaches to still try to play these playoff games."

Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, who strongly favored the decision to maintain a 16-game schedule, is not counting on the league coming up with a 12-team solution.

"What we have to do is proceed with the idea that there won't be (a full playoff field), that there will be four playoff teams in each conference," he said. "That will really put a premium on winning our division, which is the only way to ensure right now that you're going to be in. If it turns out that we do get the normal amount, we'll be happy with that. But I think every team has to focus on winning its division right now."

The Bucs' postponed game was a home meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles, the team that eliminated Tampa Bay from last year's playoffs. By rescheduling that game for the 18th week, the NFL has given the Buccaneers three straight home games to finish off the regular season, as Tampa Bay plays host to New Orleans on December 23 and Baltimore on December 29. Though each of those three teams is currently considered a strong playoff contender, a stretch drive at home could come in handy during a tight playoff race.

"We've always finished strong," said Dungy. "We've liked the December games, and having December home games has been good for us. It puts a premium on us winning our road games early in the year and not digging ourselves too big of a hole, but I like our chances if we're within striking distance in December."

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