NFL playoffs set to begin; Rams deal themselves in as `wild card'

Imagine a fantasy that offers four weeks of exhausting daily physical activity followed by instructional films at night; traveling each week to a different city where hardly anyone wishes you well; a frequent diet of restaurant food; and no time off for good behavior. One more thing: All during the tour you'll be expected to work intensely at your job while the boss and his chief assistants look over your shoulder!

Sound alluring? It does to the Los Angeles Rams, who couldn't wait to sign up for the National Football League playoff tour. They selected the popular Wild Card package, and confirmed their reservations Sunday with a 38-16 upset victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

Quarterback Jim Everett, whose erratic play reminds people of the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl, was very, very good against the 49ers, throwing for four touchdowns to give him an even 30 for the season.

The catch now, though, is that the Rams must win against the Vikings in beautiful downtown Minneapolis on Monday, Dec. 26, to be eligible for the second stop on the NFL tour. The other wild-card game will be played on Saturday between the Houston Oilers and the Browns in Cleveland. The last time the Oilers and Browns met, which was only last Sunday, also in Cleveland, the Browns won, 28-23.

With starting quarterback Bernie Kosar sidelined with injuries, Cleveland turned to 15-year veteran Don Strock, who was intercepted three times in the first quarter. Strock, however, eventually drew on hidden resources that nobody knew he still had, and threw for three touchdowns in the second half.

To summarize what happened in the AFC Central, the Cincinnati Bengals won the division with a 12-4 record, losing only to New England, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Houston. Runners-up Cleveland and Houston finished with 10-6 records and swapped victories during the regular season.

Buffalo (12-4) came home first in the AFC East, and at one time boasted an 11-1 record. But the Bills lost stature with the experts when they dropped three of their last four games.

In the AFC West, the Seattle Seahawks, who seemed to require a tuneup about as often as an expensive foreign car, defeated the Los Angeles Raiders, 43-37, on Sunday to win their division. Unless the Seattle defense improves suddenly, though, the Seahawks might not want to bother with traveler's checks.

At this point, you almost have to believe that the Super Bowl champion is going to come from the league's National Conference.

San Francisco, which had already wrapped up the NFC West title before Sunday's loss to the Rams, is certainly one strong possibility. The 49ers are basically a big-play team with a tough-to-defend quarterback in Joe Montana. The 'Niners have already beaten some pretty good clubs this season, including New Orleans (twice), the New York Giants, the Seahawks, and the Vikings.

While nobody who saw the Rams lose to Phoenix, San Diego, and Denver would ever give them much of a playoff rating, young teams do improve, and Everett may be peaking at just the right time.

In the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles refused to panic after losing three of their first four games, rebounding to win the title with a 10-6 record. The Eagles often play great defense, and they have a quarterback in Randall Cunningham, whose ability to scramble has made him a regular in NFL highlight films.

Under normal conditions, the Chicago Bears, who won the NFC Central with a 12-4 mark, would be considered the team most likely to make the Super Bowl.

Overall, the Bears probably have the best defense in the NFL, and possibly the league's most valuable player in linebacker Mike Singletary. Nuclear submarines should have a radar device as effective as Singletary's ability to zero in on ball carriers.

But offensively (because of injuries), the Bears have been juggling quarterbacks all season. While Mike Tomczak played well in Monday night's 28-27 loss to Minnesota, the Bears would prefer a healthy Jim McMahon for the playoffs. Meanwhile, many observers believe that the Vikings have proved they are currently the league's best team.

The six division champions - Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Seattle - get the Christmas weekend off by virtue of their first-place finishes, then go into action on New Year's weekend along with the survivors of the two wild-card games. Elsewhere in the NFL

More than 1.8 million people have attended the first 22 Super Bowls. The largest crowd ever was 103,985 at Super Bowl XIV in the Rose Bowl, where the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 31-19. Members of the 1989 Super Bowl champions will receive $36,000 apiece, with each player on the losing team getting $18,000. Another $2.6 million-plus will go to the owners of the competing teams.

The NFL's Spanish-speaking radio network, which got its start 10 years ago with broadcasts of Dallas Cowboy games, now includes seven teams. The others are the Bears, Raiders, Rams, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, and 49ers.

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