If the rise of the young quarterback was the story of the first half of the 2002 season, brace for the prospect of a controversy in the second half. When the NFL realigned its six divisions into eight in May 2001 and kept the playoff pool at 12 teams, the number of wild-card entries per conference was reduced from three to two. That move increased the chances that a mediocre division champ—the AFC South winner, for instance, might have only eight wins this year—could make the playoffs while a 10- or 11-win team misses out.
Yet even if a playoff-worthy team is jilted, the postseason format will not be adjusted for '03. "When we put this system in, we said we were going to give it two years," says Rich McKay, the Bucs' general manager and co-chair of the NFL competition committee. "We knew some anomalies could occur."
Some teams aren't happy to hear that. "Think of what a nightmare it would be," says Chiefs pro personnel director Bill Kuharich, "if an 8-8 team gets in and a 10-6 team doesn't—and that 10-6 team beat the 8-8 team during the season."
According to league sources, NFL owners considered two other options. Number 1: Expand the pool to 14 teams, play three games in each conference on the first playoff weekend and give the team with the best record in each conference a bye. This option was rejected because of fears that it would be seen as watering down the playoffs the way other sports have. Number 2: Award the six playoff spots in each conference to the teams with the best records. "Who cares who wins the NFC West or the AFC South?" says Rams general manager Charley Armey. "What we should care about is that our best teams make the playoffs." But that proposal fizzled because of the premium the league places on winning a division.