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 three 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 that week 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 have gone over 15 seasons without playing each other.[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 remained at 12, where it was from 1990 to 2019. Since 2020, the number of wild card teams went back to three.
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 (regular season only; in the playoffs, the NFL determines whether the roof is open or closed).
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.
This rule was amended in 2015 to allow a roof to be opened or closed at halftime, at the home team's discretion.
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.
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.
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 Seahawks Stadium and the NFC.
The Buffalo Bills introduced new uniforms featuring, among others, a darker shade of blue, nickel gray as an accent color, and red side panels on both the home and away jerseys
The Houston Texans expansion team introduced dark blue helmets; dark blue and white jerseys, both with red trim; and white pants to be worn with the blue jerseys and blue pants with the white jerseys. The new helmet logo features a bull head colored and shaped in such a way to resemble the flag of Texas and the state of Texas.
The Jacksonville Jaguars added black third alternate uniforms, and introduced new black pants with home uniforms for selected games.
The New Orleans Saints returned to wearing gold pants with their black jerseys, and with their white jerseys for selected games. They introduced a gold alternate jersey but only wore it for one game.
The New York Jets began wearing green pants with either their green or white jerseys
The San Diego Chargers switched back to navy pants with white jerseys, also brought back throwback powder blue uniforms for one game.
The Seattle Seahawks introduced new uniforms featuring, among others, a lighter "Seahawks Blue", a darker "Seahawks Navy" and lime green piping. The helmet was changed from silver to the darker navy color. The helmet logo was also modified, re-colored accordingly to the new team colors, and the eyebrows and eyes redrawn to make it a more aggressive bird.