Let the Super Bowl Tournament begin

By , Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor

True to the National Football League's penchant for fancy labeling (''wild card,'' ''nickel back,'' ''New York Sack Exchange,'' etc.) what begins Saturday is something called the Super Bowl Tournament. Don't be confused, though, these are the playoffs, pure if not quite so simple.

Due to the eight-week strike disruption, the league has ad libbed a bit, altering the post-season so that it resembles a cross between the pro basketball playoffs and a tennis tournament.

The format, which increases the normal number of participating teams from 10 to 16, prompted Minnesota wide receiver Ahmad Rashad to say,''Great, I always wanted to play in the NBA.''

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Baseball followed a similar course at the end of the strike-torn 1981 season. But doubling those playoffs produced a more manageable eight teams.

What the NFL has done is take the eight best teams in each 14-franchise conference, then seed them in the same fashion as a tennis tournament. The No. 1 team in each conference presumably earns the easiest assignment, playing the No. 8 finisher. The remaining games pair 2 with 7, 3 with 6, and 4 with 5.

This sounds relatively simple. In reality, however, winnowing the ''haves'' from the ''have nots'' was bound to be confusing with only a nine-week season that included one makeup game.

Entering last Sunday's final regular season games, every National Conference team except the Los Angeles Rams had either secured a playoff berth or still held some hope of doing so.

Ironically, the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers had only to beat the Rams to virtually lock up a playoff spot, but failed to do so. A missed extra point and a blocked field goal with two minutes to go proved critical in the 21-20 loss that dropped San Francisco's record to 3-6. It was a bitter outcome for a team that held so much promise and whose coach, Bill Walsh, was hailed as a genius after Super Bowl XVI.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals, last year's AFC champs, are still very much in contention for a trip to Pasadena for this season's Jan. 30 championship game, dubbed Psuedo Bowl I by some cynics.

Cincinnati went 7-2 to grab the third-seeded position in the AFC behind the Los Angeles Raiders (8-1) and Miami Dolphins (7-2 but with a better record against conference foes?).

On Sunday, the Bengals host the New York Jets, who have cooled off considerably since a mid-season winning streak. The Jets' Richard Todd was the hot-handed quarterback then, but at present, no one in football is more ''on'' than Cincinnati's Ken Anderson, last season's NFL Player of the Year.

After Sunday, when he completed a league record 20 consecutive passes against Houston, few would disagree that he's a strong MVP candidate. His play throughout the season certainly merits such recognition, since his 70.55 completion percentage broke a 37-year accuracy mark held by Sammy Baugh. The best weapon against such marksmanship is a good pass rush, and the Jets haven't had one this year due to injuries.

In Oakland Saturday, the Raiders take on the Browns, one of two teams to make the playoffs with a losing (4-5) record, an NFL first. The Browns' long-shot NFC counterparts are the Detroit Lions, who face the surprising Washington Redskins (8-1).

Vetern quarterback Joe Theismann turned in an outstanding year for the Redskins, but oddly enough it was straight-on placekicker Mark Moseley who actually grabbed most of the headlines. He booted an NFL record 23 consecutive field goals and became the first kicking specialist ever named the Associated Press NFL Player of the Year.

Record-setting performances seemed to be the theme late in the season. It was appropriate, therefore, that Dallas running back Tony Dorsett punctuate the season Monday night with the NFL's longest touchdown run. With the ball hugging the Dallas goal line, Dorsett broke through Minnesota's defense and raced 99 -plus yards for a score. The jaunt helped bring his season rushing total to 745 yards, second only to the 786 the Jets' Freeman McNeil compiled, but it wasn't enough to bring Dallas victory. The Vikings won 31-27, and thus averted a rematch with the Cowboys (6-3) in Sunday's playoff action.

Dallas, the NFC's second-seeded team, will now play Tampa Bay, which won its way into the post-season via an overtime victory against Chicago. Despite making the playoffs for the third time in four years, the Buccaneers couldn't be too thrilled about meeting the Cowboys, who crushed them 38-0 in a similar situation last year.

Other NFC matchups find St. Louis (5-4) visiting Green Bay (5-3-1) and Atlanta (5-4) traveling to Minnesota (5-4). The Vikings incidentally had to do a rush repair job on the bubble top of the Metrodome in order to play Dallas there Monday night.

On the AFC side of the ledger, New England (5-4) travels to Miami (7-2) on Saturday, while Pittsburgh (6-3) hosts San Diego (6-3) on Sunday.

The Dolphins will be looking for their first playoff victory since 1974 when they meet New England in an intriguing confrontation. Several weeks ago the Patriots beat Miami 3-0 in Foxboro, Mass., on a controversial field goal kicked from a spot cleared by a snow plow. The angered Dolphins are now eager to be hosting the Pats, who haven't won in Miami since 1966.

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