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With the Houston Texans joining the NFL, the league's teams were realigned into eight divisions: four teams in each division and four divisions in each conference. In creating the new divisions, the league tried to maintain the historical rivalries from the old alignment, while at the same time attempting to organize the teams geographically. Legally, three teams from the AFC Central (Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh) were required to be in the same division as part of any realignment proposals; this was part of the NFL's settlement with the city of Cleveland in the wake of the 1995 Cleveland Browns relocation controversy.
Additionally, the arrival of the Texans meant that the league could return to its pre-1999 scheduling format in which no team received a bye during the first two weeks or last seven weeks of the season. From 1999 to 2001, at least one team sat out each week (including the preseason) because of an odd number of teams in the league (this also happened in 1960, 1966, and other years wherein the league had an odd number of teams). It nearly became problematic during the previous season due to the September 11 attacks, since the San Diego Chargers had their bye week during the week following 9/11 and the league nearly outright canceled that week's slate of games.
The league also introduced a new eight-year scheduling rotation designed so that all teams will play each other at least twice during those eight years, and play in every other team's stadium at least once. Under scheduling formulas in use from 1978 to 2001, two teams in different divisions might never play each other for over fifteen seasons.[note 1] Under the new scheduling formula, only two of a team's games each season are based on the previous season's record, down from four under the previous system. All teams play four interconference games. An analysis of win percentages in 2008 showed a statistical trend upwards for top teams since this change; the top team each year then averaged 14.2 wins, versus 13.4 previously.
The playoff format was also modified: four division winners and two wild cards from each conference now advance to the playoffs, instead of three division winners and three wild cards. In each conference, the division winners are now seeded 1 through 4, and the wild cards are seeded 5 and 6. In the current system, the only way a wild card team can host a playoff game is if both teams in the conference's championship game are wild cards. However, the number of playoff teams still remains at 12, where it has been since 1990.
Major rule changes
A player who touches a pylon remains in-bounds until any part of his body touches the ground out-of-bounds.
Continuing-action fouls now become dead-ball fouls and will result in the loss of down and distance.
Any dead-ball penalties by the offense after they have made the line to gain will result in a loss of 15 yards and a new first down. Previously, the 15 yard penalty was enforced but the down was replayed.
The home team must determine whether their retractable roof is to be opened or closed 90 minutes before kickoff.
If it is closed at kickoff, it cannot be reopened during the game.
If it is open at kickoff, it cannot be closed during the game unless the weather conditions become severe.
Reebok took over the contract to be the official athletic supplier to the NFL for all 32 teams' uniforms. Previously, all teams had individual contracts with athletic suppliers. American Needle, which had a contract with a few teams before the Reebok deal, challenged the NFL in court over Reebok's exclusive deal, with the NFL effectively stating that it was a "single-entity league" instead of a group consisting of various owners. The case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 2009, the Supreme Court agreed to hear American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League. In 2010, the court ruled that the NFL is not a single entity. The legality of the NFL's exclusive contract with Reebok is still in question by the lower courts as of October 2010. Reebok remained the league's athletic supplier through the 2011 NFL season, when Nike took over the contract for the 2012 NFL season.
Reebok had initially announced when the deal was signed in 2000 that aside from the expansion Texans, all NFL teams would be wearing new uniforms for the 2002 season. However, after protests from several owners--most vocally Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney--Reebok later rescinded the proposal. Reebok did, however (by player request to reduce holding calls), shorten the sleeves on the jerseys for teams that hadn't done so already (most players had been for the previous decade tying the sleeves tight around their arms to prevent holding) and made the jerseys tighter-fitting. This is perhaps most noticeable on the Indianapolis Colts jerseys, where the shoulder stripes, which initially went from the top of the shoulders all the way underneath the arms, were truncated to just the top portion of the shoulders. This did not affect jerseys sold for retail, though, although special "authentic, gameday-worn" jerseys with the shorter sleeves are available at a much higher premium. Reebok later had more success convincing teams to change uniforms with the NHL when Reebok introduced the Rbk Edge uniforms for the 2007-08 NHL season.
Although Reebok rescinded the idea of all NFL teams wearing new uniforms for the 2002 season, the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks did redesign their uniforms, with the Seahawks also unveiling an updated logo in honor of their move to Qwest Field and the NFC.
N.Y. Jets finished ahead of New England in the AFC East based on better record in common games (8-4 to 7-5) and Miami based on better division record (4-2 to 2-4).
New England finished ahead of Miami in the AFC East based on better division record (4-2 to 2-4).
Cleveland clinched the AFC 6 seed instead of Denver or New England based on better conference record (7-5 to Denver's 5-7 and New England's 6-6).
Oakland clinched the AFC 1 seed instead of Tennessee based on a head-to-head victory.
San Diego finished ahead of Kansas City in the AFC West based on better division record (3-3 to 2-4).
Philadelphia clinched the NFC 1 seed instead of Green Bay or Tampa Bay based on better conference record (11-1 to Green Bay's 9-3 and Tampa Bay's 9-3).
Tampa Bay clinched the NFC 2 seed instead of Green Bay on a head-to-head victory.
St. Louis finished ahead of Seattle in the NFC West based on better division record (4-2 to 2-4).
Within each conference, the four division winners and the two wild card teams (the top two non-division winners with the best overall regular season records) qualified for the playoffs. The four division winners are seeded 1 through 4 based on their overall won-lost-tied record, and the wild card teams are seeded 5 and 6. The NFL does not use a fixed bracket playoff system, and there are no restrictions regarding teams from the same division matching up in any round. In the first round, dubbed the wild-card playoffs or wild-card weekend, the third-seeded division winner hosts the sixth seed wild card, and the fourth seed hosts the fifth. The 1 and 2 seeds from each conference then receive a bye in the first round. In the second round, the divisional playoffs, the number 1 seed hosts the worst surviving seed from the first round (seed 4, 5 or 6), while the number 2 seed will play the other team (seed 3, 4 or 5). The two surviving teams from each conference's divisional playoff games then meet in the respective AFC and NFC Conference Championship games, hosted by the higher seed. Although the Super Bowl, the fourth and final round of the playoffs, is played at a neutral site, the designated home team is based on an annual rotation by conference.