NFL playoff field down to four

Head coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins can no more stay away from the weekly ritual of grading his players individually than a child can resist walking through a mud puddle. If one of his starters doesn't perform up to his usual standard, Shula rebuilds him during the week as you would an engine. This not only keeps team mistakes at an acceptable level, it practically eliminates them. Since the National Football League playoffs began, in fact, just about all Don has had to reach for is his polishing cloth.

Miami's latest glittering performance, a 34-13 win over the San Diego Chargers, catapulted the Dolphins, who own the home field advantage, into Sunday's AFC title game against the surprising New York Jets. The Jets, who have become a model for what can be built with smart draft choices and a lot of patience, closed out the Raiders' first season in Los Angeles with a 17-14 victory. The play that sealed the Raiders in plastic was an interception by Jets' linebacker Lance Mehl with fewer than two minutes left in the game. Mehl was also the Jets' leading tackler during the regular season.

Both Miami and New York are where they are chiefly because of tight defenses that have consistently made the touchdown-saving plays all year. During their regular season the Dolphins gave up only 131 points, the Jets 166. And while New York's Walt Michaels hasn't been a head coach as long as Shula, Michaels did a tremendous job of getting his team ready for the Raiders, who were unable to react with their usual big-play offensive flair. For LA quarterback Jim Plunkett , who three times had his passes picked off by alert Jet defenders, it ended a season in which he had been intercepted 20 times in 11 games.

This Saturday, in a game between fierce rivals that may make the Super Bowl look pale by comparison, the Dallas Cowboys play the Washington Redskins in the nation's capital. Dallas was the only team to beat Washington during the regular season (24-10 on Dec. 5), but that statistic is practically meaningless when applied to the playoffs.

In two years at Washington, head coach Joe Gibbs has brought order to what was chaos. Although Gibbs hasn't ignored the air lanes, he prefers the ground as a means of moving and controlling the football. And he's got the perfect physical specimen to ram the ball down opponents' throats in fullback John Riggins, who gained 185 yards last Sunday as Washington eliminated the Minnesota Vikings from the playoffs, 21-7. Said Viking defensive end Doug Martin after the game: ''Once you become a pro, you're not supposed to cringe in front of any running backs. But Riggins isn't just anybody - he's a mass of man who goes at least 230 pounds and he runs with his legs high, where it's hard to get a grip on them.''

The one team that might be able to stop Riggins is Dallas, whose flex defense contains so many options and sets that coach Tom Landry is never at a loss for answers. Dallas has also beaten the Redskins the last three times they have played at Washington, D.C.'s RFK Stadium. And for those who put a premium on experience, the Cowboys, who knocked off Green Bay 37-26 on Sunday, will be making their 10th NFC title game appearance in the last 13 years. They have won five of nine thus far. As good as the Miami-New York playoff game figures to be , this one should be even better. Bennett booted; Winslow saluted

When owner Rankin Smith of the Atlanta Falcons fired Leeman Bennett last week , he dismissed the only winning coach in the team's 16-year history. Smith simply couldn't swallow Atlanta's 30-24 first-round loss in the playoffs to Minnesota, a team Rankin considered inferior to the Falcons. Bennett, appearing at a press conference with Smith, did not try to hide the fact that he was both surprised and disappointed after being cut loose by Rankin. In six seasons with the Falcons, Leeman posted a 47-44 regular season record; got Atlanta into the playoffs three times; and won an NFC Western Division championship in 1980. Insiders say the next phone call Bennett gets will be from either the Philadelphia Eagles or the Los Angeles Rams, both of whom are looking for new head coaches. . . . Baltimore, which finished the strike-abbreviated 1982 season with a 0-8-1 mark, will pick first in the NFL's 1983 college draft in late April. The next nine selections belong to Houston; the LA Rams; Denver; San Diego (using San Francisco's pick); Chicago; Kansas City; Philadelphia; Seattle; and the New York Giants.

The NFL's best set of vise-grip hands probably belongs to San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow, who led the AFC in receiving for the third consecutive year. Winslow caught 54 passes during the regular season for a total of 721 yards. Charger wide receiver Wes Chandler actually gained more yardage despite five fewer grabs. Chandler was the only receiver in the NFL this year to gain 1,000 or more yards. San Francisco's Dwight Clark led all receivers with 60 catches. . . .In Buffalo, head coach Chuck Knox of the Bills has asked for a private meeting with owner Ralph Wilson to iron out some internal problems having to do with player contracts. Knox seems to think that when players are unhappy over compensation and fringe benefits, it often affects what they do on the field; besides taking up time that a coach needs for other things. Apparently if Knox can't get that kind of freedom from Wilson, he'll ask for permission to take his expertise elsewhere.

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