The National Football League playoff picture looks even cloudier than usual for this time of year, but things will have to begin falling into place after the next-to-last round of ``must'' games coming up Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Los Angeles was a big winner last weekend, with both teams representing that city scoring spectacular, come-from-behind victories in the lairs of their archrivals. Both New York teams also stayed on the postseason track with road victories as they readied for a pair of key games this weekend.
The Cincinnati Bengals crushed Dallas in another biggie, leaving the Cowboys tied with the Giants heading into their annual showdown in Texas Stadium Sunday. Meanwhile, both the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins also won impressively, setting up a potential thriller when they battle for the AFC East lead in the Orange Bowl Monday night.
When the dust has settled from these and various other weekend games, we will have a pretty good idea which teams will be battling for Super Bowl berths and which ones won't. And unless they win both of their remaining contests, the defending champion San Francisco 49ers will almost certainly find themselves in the latter group.
This has been a strange season for the 49ers. They started off like a team that had spent too much time reading its own press clippings, and after 10 weeks they were mired at the .500 mark. For the next three weeks they looked like the best team in the league, crushing Kansas City, Seattle, and Washington by a combined score of 85 to 17 as their defense didn't allow a single touchdown. But then Monday night at home, with a chance to tie the Rams for the NFC West lead, they got burned on a couple of big plays and lost a 27-20 decision that just about assured L.A. of a playoff berth and left their own chances in the ``iffy'' category.
Actually, the 49ers dominated this game from a statistical standpoint. They gained twice as many yards passing (300 to 150), had almost twice as many first downs (22-12), were virtually equal on the ground (110 yards to 114), and held the lead on three separate occasions, including late in the fourth quarter. It's pretty hard to lose a football game with statistics like that, but they managed to do it. The Rams opened the second half with an 89-yard kickoff return by Olympic sprinter Ron Brown, tied the
game with 5:08 to go via a 39-yard Dieter Brock-to-Henry Ellard scoring pass, and won it when cornerback Gary Green intercepted a Joe Montana pass a couple of minutes later and ran 41 yards for the decisive touchdown.
The other Los Angeles team, the Raiders, also won in spectacular fashion -- fighting back from a 14-0 deficit at snowy, wind-swept Mile High Stadium in Denver, forcing the game into overtime, then emerging victorious, 17-14, on Chris Bahr's 26-yard field goal at 4:55 of the extra session. It was L.A.'s second overtime victory over the Broncos (the other one was by a 31-28 score three weeks ago), putting the Raiders in the driver's seat for the AFC West title and dimming Denver's hopes for even a wild-ca rd berth.
New York's entries didn't have quite such fierce opposition (the Jets crushed Buffalo and the Giants rolled past Houston), but they'll get their turns this weekend. The Jets must play the league's dominant 1985 team, Chicago, on Saturday, and the Giants have that big one in Dallas on Sunday.
Here's how the playoff picture shapes up with two weeks to go:
AFC East. With the Dolphins, Patriots, and Jets tied for the lead, the division title hinges largely on the two big games mentioned above involving these teams. And one of the eventual also-rans may well get in via the wild-card berth.
AFC Central. Cincinnati's big victory over Dallas, coupled with a loss by Cleveland, left these teams tied for the lead in this weak division, where obviously only the winner will advance to the playoffs.
AFC West. The Raiders will be the division champions unless they lose both of their remaining games, and even then they might get the wild-card berth. Denver and Seattle still have mathematical playoff chances, but they're pretty slim.
NFC East. The Giants-Cowboys winner figures to make it, with the loser of that game, along with Washington, still a wild-card possibility.
NFC Central. The Bears are in, everybody else out, in this relatively weak division.
NFC West. The Rams appear in command, while the 49ers could still squeak in via the wild-card door if they win their last two games.