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Blimps, tailgating may suffer as NFL makes security No. 1 priority

Posted: Tuesday, September 18, 2001

Things will be different when the NFL reopens Sunday. Tailgating, the schedule and how many teams get to play for Super Bowl spots all could be changing.

There probably will be a 16-game season -- commissioner Paul Tagliabue is expected to announce Tuesday that the games called off Sunday and Monday will be made up on what would have been wild card weekend Jan 5-6.

The locked-out regular officials will probably be back. According to a league source, the two sides worked out an agreement pending a ratification vote by the union.

But fans who blithely drive into parking lots three hours before a game, tailgate for 2 1/2 hours, then casually walk to their seats just in time for kickoff, won't be able to do that anymore.

''The commissioner has decided that our No. 1 priority is security,'' Milt Ahlerich, the NFL's senior director of security, said Monday.

''Our fans are going to have to be more patient. We're suggesting that they get to the stadiums early and then get to their seats early. We want to alleviate that last-minute game crush.''

There will be more uniformed police at games. Fans will not be allowed to bring bags into stadiums, and cars will be required to park a good distance away. Those were among the security measures used during the 1991 playoffs, which took place during the Gulf War.

But there will not be fighter planes circling stadiums while games are being played. ''The threat has not come to that level,'' Ahlerich said.

As teams returned to practice Monday, things still seemed a bit awry.

''As you might have expected, our focus wasn't quite at the level that we would normally expect it to be,'' Detroit coach Marty Mornhinweg said.

Some players and coaches remained concerned about travel. Carolina coach George Seifert said the Panthers were considering driving to Atlanta for this week's game rather than flying.

''I've never been on a bus for 4 1/2-to-5 hours before. That might be a new experience,'' tight end Wesley Walls said. ''We'll see how I like it.''

Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and New Orleans will be off next weekend, and Arizona, which was off the first week of the regular season, hasn't played since its last exhibition on Aug. 31. That will make it 24 days without a game when the Cardinals face Denver in Tempe on Sunday night.

The Steelers, Saints, Bucs and Lions now won't have home games until the fifth weekend, with Detroit playing St. Louis on Monday night that week. That's particularly disappointing to Pittsburgh, which had been scheduled to open brand-new Heinz Field on Sunday night.

Another potential problem caused by the six-day postponement of baseball games was alleviated Monday when the Baltimore Orioles moved Cal Ripken's final game from Oct. 7 to the previous night. That avoided a conflict with the Tennessee Titans-Baltimore Ravens game scheduled next door to Camden Yards at 1 p.m. on Oct. 7.

The playoffs will be changed, if Tagliabue does as expected and makes up last weekend's games on the wild-card weekend. The playoff teams would be reduced from 12 teams to eight, with just one wild card team in each conference instead of three.

No team seeded lower than fourth has made it to a championship game since Jacksonville upset Buffalo and Denver to reach the AFC title game after the 1996 season. And only one has made it to a Super Bowl -- New England after the 1985 season, when there were just two wild card teams per conference.

But it could have an impact on some of the NFL's strongest teams -- particularly in the AFC.

Each AFC division appears to have two strong teams: Miami and Indianapolis in the East; Baltimore and Tennessee in the Central; and Oakland and Denver in the West. Recent history tells us that there is at least one sleeper every year that turns 180 degrees from a horrible season -- San Diego, 1-15 last season, opened with a 30-3 win over Washington.

With only one wild card team per conference, the division races become far more important. Tennessee's opening-week loss to Miami might be pivotal if the two contend for a wild card spot.

Jacksonville was lobbying Monday against the 16-game season because its playoff chances would be severely damaged with that plan.

''The goal around here for so long has been, get into the playoffs,'' linebacker Kevin Hardy said. ''If you can get into the playoffs, we know the magic can begin.''

But the New York Jets, another marginal playoff contender, said they were for the 16-game plan.

''I want to play as many as we can play,'' coach Herman Edwards said. ''They might have to change the playoff format, but I think it will be 16 games and they'll do whatever they need to squeeze it in.''

In the NFC, the reduction in wild card teams probably would mean the Giants or Eagles would have to win the East to make the playoffs. Each will have to sweep the Redskins, Cardinals and Cowboys, all of whom seem to be among the league's weakest teams, then at least split against each other.

Overall, the mood around the NFL on Monday was expressed by Arizona coach Dave McGinnis as the Cardinals resumed practice after their long layoff.

''We're back to work,'' he said. ''As our president said when he got off the helicopter from Camp David, he wanted America to go back to work. We're back to work. Our work this weekend is the Denver Broncos.''



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