Playoff scene resets most of '90 field 5 in AFC, 3 in NFC destined to repeat

December 07, 1991|By Vito Stellino

They're about to round up the usual suspects for this season's NFL playoffs.

With three weeks left in the regular season, the 1991 playoff picture is beginning to look very similar to the field that entered the 1990 playoffs.

Five of last season's six AFC qualifiers might return, and three and possibly four of 1990's NFC qualifiers could return.

Although 20 teams are still mathematically alive, only 16 teams with winning records are in the battle for the 12 playoff spots. The NFL increased the number of playoff berths last year from 10 to 12.

Of the eight teams already eliminated, only one of them -- the Cincinnati Bengals -- made the playoffs last year.

The Denver Broncos, who failed to make it last season, can clinch what amounts to the Bengals' berth by winning at Cleveland tomorrow.

The other five AFC teams that qualified last year -- the Buffalo Bills, Houston Oilers, Los Angeles Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins -- might make it back.

The Bills have clinched their division title, the Oilers and Raiders are each 9-4 and seem locks for playoff berths and the Chiefs (8-5) have a pair of apparently easy games against the San

Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Rams.

That leaves the Dolphins (7-6) locked in a struggle with the New York Jets (7-6) for the other playoff berth in a battle that could come down to the season finale between the two at Joe Robbie Stadium.

Miami has the easier road before then, with games against the Bengals and Chargers, while the Jets must play the Detroit Lions, who haven't lost indoors this season, in the Silverdome tomorrow.

Three teams with losing records -- the Seattle Seahawks (6-7), Cleveland Browns (6-7) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8) -- are still alive in the AFC, but only mathematically.

Things are more complicated in the NFC, although one of last season's qualifiers, the Washington Redskins, already has won a division title and two more 1990 playoff teams, the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints, are both 9-4 and figure to make it again.

That leaves one new newcomer, the Lions (9-4), likely to make it.

That means it's likely there'll be a five-team battle for the final two slots with two newcomers, the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys, both 8-5, battling with three of last year's qualifiers -- the Philadelphia Eagles (8-5) and the two teams that played in last year's NFC title game, the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers, who are struggling at 7-6.

It would seem strange if both the Giants and 49ers don't make it. The last time that happened was in 1982.

Since 1986, the Giants, 49ers and Redskins are the only teams to win Super Bowls.

Atlanta seems to have the schedule in its favor, because it plays the Rams and Seahawks the next two weeks before closing against the Dallas Cowboys, who play the Saints and Eagles the next two weeks.

If the form prevails, the Redskins and Bills should get home-field advantage all the way through the conference playoffs. They'd then both be favored to make it to the Super Bowl. That would mean the Bills would play the NFC East champion for the second straight year in the Super Bowl. Last year, the Bills lost a thriller to the Giants, 20-19, when Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt at the end of the game.

But now it's that time of year when all the contenders can see visions of the Super Bowl dancing in their dreams.

With a twinkle in his eye, Jerry Jones, the Dallas owner, said: "What would we have to do [to get to the Super Bowl]? Go to Washington and beat the Redskins? I guess I agree that's impossible."

The Cowboys, of course, are the only team to beat Washington this season, and they did it in Washington, so Jones likes his chances.

Detroit coach Wayne Fontes said this week was the first time he mentioned the Super Bowl to his team.

"That's the first time those words came out of my lips, but it's realistic," he said.

The Lions have won a pair of emotional games since offensive lineman Mike Utley was paralyzed and have seemingly turned this season into a crusade for him.

Quarterback Erik Kramer said he thinks fans across the country are rooting for the Lions the way they rooted for Loyola Marymount after Hank Gathers died on the court.

"The nation is focused on what the team is doing," Kramer said.

A Lions trip to the Super Bowl would be an inspirational story. Detroit never has played in the game and hasn't played in a title game since 1957.

But this is the time of the year when the odds seem to favor the teams that have done it in the past.

Repeat performances?

How the 1990 playoff teams are faring in the chase for a postseason berth this season:

NFC

.. .. .. .'90 '91

Team .. ..W-L .W-L Prospects

Redskins 10-6 12-1 Clinched division title

Saints .. 8-8 .9-4 Can clinch playoffs tomorrow by beating Cowboys

Bears .. 11-5 .9-4 Easy road with Green Bay and Tampa as next 2 foes

Giants ..13-3 .7-6 Slim hopes with Eagles, Redskins and Oilers left

Eagles ..10-6 .8-5 Tough schedule with Giants, Cowboys, Redskins

49ers .. 14-2 .7-6 May need sweep against Seahawks, Chiefs, Bears

AFC

Bills .. 13-3 11-2 Clinched division title

Oilers .. 9-7 .9-4 Can clinch division with win over Steelers tomorrow

Raiders .12-4 .9-4 Can clinch playoffs with win over Bills tomorrow

vTC Chiefs ..11-5 .8-5 Easy road with Chargers and Rams on schedule

Dolphins 12-4 .7-6 Could sweep Bengals, Chargers and Jets to qualify

Bengals ..9-7 2-11 Eliminated

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