The league that discourages its games from ending in stalemates has agreed to take labor talks into overtime.
After meeting for more than eight hours Thursday with federal mediator George Cohen in Washington, D.C., owners and the players association decided to extend the midnight expiration for the collective bargaining agreement by 24 hours.
By keeping the clock running during their 10th negotiating session with Cohen, the league avoided, at least temporarily, its first work stoppage in 24 years.
The players association had planned to file papers to decertify the union by 4 p.m. Thursday unless significant progress was made on a new collective bargaining agreement.
The owners would have responded by locking out players by 12:01 a.m. today.
"To all the fans who dig our game, we appreciate your patience as we work through this," union executive director DeMaurice Smith said as he left the negotiation session. "We're going to keep working. We want to play football."
Said commissioner Roger Goodell as he left: "We are working as hard as we can."
The Bucs plan to strictly enforce a league-imposed gag order on labor matters.
The purpose for decertifying the union is to permit players who are locked out to sue the league under antitrust laws, claiming restraint of trade.
Without decertification, the union would have to wait six months to file a suit after the collective bargaining agreement expired.
According to multiple reports, quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Colts, Tom Brady of the Patriots and Drew Brees of the Saints said they would be part of any such suit.
Talks were scheduled to continue this morning.
The Associated Press reported the sides weren't expected to resume face-to-face bargaining today. Instead they were to meet separately with Cohen to hash out whether to prolong the extension, and if so, for how many days.
By 11:59 tonight, either an accord must be reached on a new collective bargaining agreement or the sides must agree to extension of the current agreement. The union still will have the option of decertifying if an impasse can't be broken.
Owners could also still vote to lock players out.
Extending the deadline might be the most significant agreement the two sides have reached.
Redskins player representative Vonnie Holliday said the two sides were "still apart."
"I don't see how we can be that close right now unless somebody is going to pull a rabbit out of the hat," he said. "I just don't see it."
The league and its players are thought to be far apart on how to divide $9 billion in annual revenue. Proposals for an 18-game season, a rookie wage scale, retirement benefits and other issues remain unresolved.
Owners apparently made enough concessions Thursday to convince the union to continue their dialogue for at least one more day.
Joining Smith at the mediation session Thursday were Brees, union president Kevin Mawae, Colts center Jeff Saturday, Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch and several others, including current and former players.
Also on hand for the NFL were Giants owner John Mara and Packers president Mark Murphy, who are members of the league's labor committee, which has the authority to call for a lockout.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.