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NFL'S CHOICE ON POSTSEASON GAMES IS LIKELY TO BE WILD

The assumption of many sports fans is that television controls everything. We'll find out if that's the case when the NFL decides what to do with its postseason.

This week, the NFL pulled a minor surprise by announcing that it would play last week's postponed games Jan. 6, when the wild-card games were to be played.

The decision is good for the integrity of the game. It will allow all teams to play the same number of games.

Additionally, no player will lose a regular-season paycheck and no team will lose gate revenue.

However, it is not good for television, which gets much higher ratings and much more advertising revenue for playoff games than it does for regular-season games.

And if the two wild-card games normally carried by ABC in the first weekend are dropped and four playoff spots are eliminated, there's a reasonable chance that several of the Jan. 6 games will be meaningless to one or both teams and ratings will be weaker than usual.

A Bills game in Miami on Jan. 6 would be awfully interesting if both teams are in the running for playoff berths. But if the Bills are out of it, it will be a ratings loser for WIVB-TV, Channel 4. While CBS probably would prefer the wild-card games remain, Channel 4 and other affiliates can make more advertising revenue with games involving their home teams.

Several of the 15 rescheduled games look like losers already. Dallas at Detroit, Arizona at Washington, New England at Carolina, and Cleveland at Pittsburgh look much more exciting in September's Week Two, when hope springs eternal for everyone, than in January, when most teams are looking forward to next year.

If the four extra wild-card teams aren't maintained to heighten the playoff suspense in December, attendance and ratings will surely drop in several cities when the weather can be an additional factor.

That's probably why the NFL appears to be desperately seeking a solution to keep the wild cards. There really doesn't appear to be one that won't come without jeopardizing the sport's image or disrupting fans' plans.

The idea of delaying the Super Bowl by a week to allow for the wild-card games is the best alternative. But it means that people who have planned for months to attend the game Jan. 27 in New Orleans will have to change their travel plans at a considerable cost. Or they could decide to drop them altogether. Super Bowl tickets are always hot items. But in the face of terrorism, there is the potential embarrassment of empty seats.

The possible move to the first week of February could put the game, carried by Fox, opposite February sweeps programming on the other networks. The other networks usually stay out of the game's way, but they might not be able to afford to or be willing to during the sweeps.

Then there's the idea being floated of playing first-round wild card games on a Wednesday night, three or four days before the second round.

Yeah, right. By January, players are already pretty banged up. That's if they aren't out for the season. The idea of playing two games in a week and three within two weeks has the potential for a major injury disaster that would end up damaging the league's reputation.

It looks like it will be pretty hard for the league to have its cake and eat it, too. It will have to sacrifice something. By rescheduling last week's games, it has rightly decided to be fair. It shouldn't change that philosophy now.

If it is thinking of the players and its own long-term image and not of satisfying its TV partners, the NFL will just have to sacrifice the four wild cards as the price it has to pay during our national crisis.
Rob Johnson is becoming one of the favorite quarterbacks of "Edge NFL Matchup," the ESPN show hosted by Suzy Kolber in which analysts Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge dissect plays. According to the show's publicist, Johnson's play is analyzed for the second straight show this weekend, prior to the Bills' game with the Colts. Johnson was critiqued briefly on the opening show prior to his poor performance in the New Orleans Saints game.

Tuesday night, the "big story" leading the Empire Sports Report was a scrimmage in South Carolina between two squads of Buffalo Sabres players that ended in a 9-8 score. While everyone knows that hockey coverage drives the network, it only makes itself look silly by leading the show with a preseason scrimmage.
Channel 23's new 10:30 p.m. Sunday highlights program, "Bills Blitz," may have needed a week off to make some adjustments. Its Spartan set looks so silly that even Channel 4 sportscaster Paul Peck made a crack about it in the premiere two Sundays ago. Peck, sports director Dennis Williams and Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan stand around a table and talk football. They look about as comfortable as Johnson looks in the West Coast offense.

The first show was as unimpressive as the Bills. The dumb comment of the opening week came courtesy of Williams, who said he would rather see Johnson throw the ball and be intercepted than hold it so long that he would be sacked again. Say what?
Jim Brinson, co-host of Fan TV on the Empire Sports Network, gets a two-hour weekday radio shift from noon to 2 p.m. starting Monday on WNSA-FM. Art Wander's show moves from 10 a.m. to noon. Unfortunately, that means the end of the interesting syndicated show hosted by Jay Mariotti of Sporting News Radio.

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