It's down to the wire for NFL's lineup in the playoffs

As the National Football League's regular season enters its final melodramatic weekend, questions abound -- the kind that soap operas and Sergeant Preston serials are made of.

"Will Cleveland defeat Cincinnati and win the American Conference Central crown? Can Pittsburgh, holding onto slim 'wild card' hopes, face not making the playoffs? Can Buffalo cap its big turnaround season with a division-clinching victory even though quarter- back Joe Ferguson is bothered by a tender ankle?"

The most intriguing question, however, may be: Can the NFL figure out who's qualified for the playoffs before their scheduled start? Some fans wonder.

The expansion of the league, the advent of divisional play, and a more inclusive playoff format have heightened confusion at this time of year. Whereas once things were quite simple -- two conference winners played for the NFL championship -- today nearly half of the league's 28 teams grapple for 10 playoff berths in late-season musical chairs.

At this moment, with only one game remaining in the 16-week regular season, not a single American Football Conference team has clinched a playoff berth. Seven remain in the running for five spots, three of which go to the division champions and two to "wild cards" (those with the best records after division championships have been decided).

The seven AFC clubs still vying for postseason passports are Buffalo (10-5), New England (9-6), San Diego (10-5), Oakland (10- 5), Cleveland (10-5), Houston (10-5), and Pittsburgh (9-6).

The Steelers, only partly in control of their own destiny, very possibly won't even get a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. For Pittsburgh to make the playoffs, the following must happen: The Steelers must beat San Diego next Monday night after New England has lost to New Orleans. In Addition, incredible as it seems, Oakland, Cleveland, and Houston must all win. This is because Pttsburgh's only chance to make it under the NFL's extremely complicated tie-breaking formula is to wind up in a two-way deadlock with San Diego for a wild-card berth.

This sort of Rube Goldberg complexity defines most everybody else's chances as well.

For people not big on involved formulas, there is always the National Football Conference. Generally recognized as the inferior circuit, the NFC has produced more comprehensible, if less suspenseful, results.

The only thing still unsettled is the status of Philadelphia (12-3) and Dallas (11-4), and even this is hardly in doubt. To sew up the NFC Eastern championship Sunday, the Eagles don't even have to beat the Cowboys -- just make sure they don't lose by 26 or more points -- another aspect of the tie-breaking system. So, barring any such catastrophe, Philadelphia will join Minnesota (9-6 ) and Atlanta (12-3) as a division winner, while Dallas and Los Angeles (10-5) take the wild-card spots. If the Cowboys should win by such a big score, of course, they and the Eagles would just reverse playoff positions.

The Rams had their seven-year reign in the West snapped by the suprising Falcons, who mounted a nine-game winning streak to secure their first-ever division title. Minnesota, meanwhile, managed to lock up its 11th Central Division crown in 13 years with an incredible come-from-behind victory over Cleveland.

The vikings capped their 28-23 triumph with a last-ditch, 46-yard touchdown pass as time expired. Under the circumstances, Minnesota never should have scored.But the completion -- made by Ahmad Rashad after the ball was tipped twice -- had "1-in-1,000 fluke" stamped all over it.

"We have a flair for the dramatic, don't we?" said Cleveland coach Sam Rutigliano, whose team has a penchant for tingling endings. The Browns have been in 11 games decided in the last minutes.

Cleveland can still clinch the AFC Central title by beating Cincinnati. But another of the Brown's penchants is for losing in Cincinnati, and Sunday's game will be played at Riverfront Stadium, the Bengal's home park.A loss to Cincinnati last season cost the Browns their first playoff trip since 1972, and a similar tragedy could befall them if that outcome is repeated.

A defeat would leave them with a 10-6 record, a mark they could conceivably share with all six other AFC contenders. It's just such an eventuality that's led the league to devise an elaborate tie-breaking plan. The nine-step formula is designed to untangle photo finishes for both division championships and wild-card berths.

When things can't be sorted out strictly on the basis of overall won-loss records, the NFL compares head-to-head records. Then it goes to division records, followed by conference records; records vs. common opponents; net points in division games; net points in all games; strength of schedule; and net touchdowns in all games. If all else fails, the league must resort to Step No. 9, a coin flip. So far, that has never happened, and everyone hopes it never will.

Before the American Football LEague merged with the NFL, ties were broken with special one-game playoffs, the most recent occurring in 1968 between Oakland and Kansas City.

This system worked adequately up until 1970, when the enlarged NFL went to three divisions per conference, necessitating pre- Super Bowl eliminations to decide the game's contestants. "Wild card" qualifiers made their debut as well, although just one was provided for from each conference so as to make a symmetrical eight-team field. Two more will cards were added in 1978, so that now four wild-card teams play in a first round while the division winners take a week off.

This season's playoffs begin on Dec. 28, with the ultimate destination being New Orleans and Super Bowl XV on Jan. 25.

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