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.
Both the AFC Central and the NFC Central were renamed AFC North and NFC North, respectively. They retained their team placement, minus the Titans, Jaguars and Buccaneers of their respective conferences.
Additionally, the arrival of the Texans meant that the league could return to its pre-1999 scheduling format in which no team got 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 canceling that week.
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 will play in every other team's stadium at least once. Under the new scheduling formula, only two of a team's games each season are based on the previous year'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 wildcard team can host a playoff game is if both teams in the conference's Championship Game are wild cards.
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 act of batting and stripping the ball from a player is officially legal.
Chop-blocks are illegal on kicking plays.
Hitting a quarterback helmet-to-helmet anytime after a change of possession is illegal.
After a kickoff, the game clock will start when the ball is touched legally in the field of play. Previously, the clock started immediately when the ball was kicked.
Inside the final two minutes of a half, the game clock will not stop when the player who originally takes the snap is tackled behind the line of scrimmage (i.e. sacked).
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
In addition, Reebok took over the contract to be the official athletic supplier to the NFL for all 32 teams's uniforms. Previously, 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 32 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 (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.