Two more questions that dance about the mind:

Are the Redskins, as they insist, among the five best teams in the National Football League?


Do they deserve to be in the playoffs?


But then neither do the Philadelphia Eagles, the Chicago Bears, the Houston Oilers and the Denver Broncos. There ought to be NFL games this week, but not the games the NFL will offer.

For weeks, assorted thinkers -- amongthem Redskin Coach Jack Pardee -- have been attacking the NFL system for selecting wild-card teams. Is net points fair? Would common opponents be better than strength of schedule? Should net touchdowns be eliminated?

The debate never should have begun. What should be eliminated is the wild-card system itself. The teams who ought to be playing this Sunday are four division winners, Dallas and Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and Miami. The teams with the week off should be the ones with the best records, Pittsburgh and San Diego.

Everybody else should be packing equipment and shopping for linebackers and wideouts.

The lamentable legacy of the '70s has been the shrinking credibility of professional sport. Regular-season games in basketball and hockey mean little when more teams make the playoffs than do not. Only baseball has stayed pure, with a championship only playoff, though creating four divisions from two leagues does assure more champions.

One can almost justify giving runners-up a second chance in the NFL. Its season is one-fifth as long as basketball and hockey, one-tenth as long as baseball. All the teams do not play each other.

But once a league gets greedy and begins to compromise its standards, all manner of ominous situations become possible. Two conference wild-card teams -- and their playing each other in the first playoff -- make it less likely a champion might benefit from losing late in the regular season. i

Still, Pardee has discovered some realities at least as nasty. To qualify for the playoffs, especially as a wildcard team, it almost is necessary to sacrifice compassion. The idea now is not only to win in the NFL but also to clear the opposition into the ground.

That is because of a tie-breaking procedure called net points in all games. It encourages, almost demands running up the score whenever possible, a tactic regarded with disdain.

The sad truth about the Redskins is that they missed the playoffs because Pardee chose to attempt a two-touchdown victory over Green Bay rather than try for another seven points near the end.

Washington got the ball with enough time and the Packers sufficiently demoralized to score a touchdown. Pardee gave them his hand instead of his foot. And the Redskins were beaten out of playoff spot by the Bears by four points.


Because the tie-breaking criteria made that the third step -- and probably the best one the NFL can use in that situation.

And the Redskins-Bears situation is not an aberration. These are teams from different divisions -- and not forced to play each other, as the first step demands. Also, two teams in other years are likely to be tied after the second step, with similar conference records.

That leads to the third step and its shameful implications.

As Pardee said, the Redskins and everyone else will be forced next season to score as often as possible. Which at first inspection does not seem all that harmful. Entertainment is a significant part of the game and nothing is more boring than one team being unable to score and the other not trying.

But emotions are raw during the final moments of a game whose outcome has been known for some time. A team that keeps its starters playing risks the very real possibility of having them hurt.

When the Redskins kicked the last-second field goal that made a 31-20 victory a 34-20 embarrassment over the Cowboys here this season, Dallas hardly minded a 15-yard penalty for clobbering Mark Moseley.

What if Mosley had been hurt on the play? In retrospect, Pardee should have ordered Joe Theismann and the rest of the offense into the game and tried for a touchdown. Perhaps he will next season.

Perhaps Theismann will be injured by some angry headhunter. Or another pivotal player on another team.

But beyond practical reasons this sucks nearly all meaning from sportsmanship. Clearly, the league needs an alternative.


Pardee suggests common opponents, or strength of schedule. The Bears and Redskins played just four common opponents. And strength of schedule is not much more valid than a coin flip.

Which means that future NFL lessons to future athletes, young and impressionable youngsters, will be: win first -- and then rub it in as hard and as long as you can.