Going into the ninth and final week of Strike Season, seven teams are still contending for the final two National Football Conference playoff berths and three for the final two AFC berths.
Eight teams in each conference make the National Football League playoffs in a format revised and expanded because of the eight-week strike by the players union. For the first time, a team with a losing record is guaranteed a playoff spot and as many as five could get in.
"You're going to get a reward for having a losing season?" said Giants Coach Ray Perkins, whose 3-5 team could get just that. "Does that make sense? It doesn't to me."
Not everything about the playoff possibilities makes sense. But according to the NFL, this much is certain:
In the NFC, only the Los Angeles Rams (1-7) have been eliminated. Washington, Dallas, Green Bay, Atlanta, St. Louis and Minnesota are in. (The Vikings would be 4-5 if they end their season by losing to Dallas, but would qualify on basis of conference record, the key tie breaker in case of multiple ties.)
A loss would eliminate any of the seven NFC teams that have not yet clinched a spot.
Beyond that, things get complicated. Tampa Bay (4-4) can clinch a playoff berth with a victory or a tie against the Bears.
A victory over the Rams would put defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco in the playoffs, unless the Eagles and Giants play to a tie.
In that case, the 49ers would gain the playoffs if either Tampa Bay loses to Chicago or New Orleans loses at home to Atlanta. A loss by Tampa Bay would assure a multiple tie at 4-5, and the 49ers would have the best conference record among the seven teams in contention. If Tampa Bay wins or ties, New Orleans would have to lose, because if there were a two-way tie between San Francisco and New Orleans, the Saints would win because they beat the 49ers, 23-20, last month.
"I'm sure there are scenarios for everybody (to get in), but it gets complicated," said Dick Maxwell, director of information for the NFC.
On Sunday, there was confusion in the league office and in at least three cities over who was in, who was out and who could still get in. In Philadelphia, one of those cities, Jim Gallagher, a spokesman for the Eagles, said yesterday: "Some people think we have a computer and push a few buttons and out it comes. But it doesn't work that way. Maybe we'll have to wait until late Sunday afternoon to find out for sure."
For example, if the Eagles gain the playoffs, the deciding factor could be net points if the Eagles and Tampa Bay tie for the final spot.
Here is how the Eagles could make the playoffs: if they defeat the Giants, the Falcons defeat the Saints, the Packers defeat the Lions and the Rams defeat the 49ers, the Eagles would be in. The other team would be either Tampa Bay, by at least tying Chicago, or the Bears, by beating Tampa Bay. If Chicago wins, the final playoff berth would be determined on net points, since Philadelphia and Tampa Bay would be 2-4 in conference play. Current net points: Philadelphia minus two, Tampa Bay minus 23.
Obviously, some possibilities are best left unexplored.
The AFC is slightly less complex.
The Los Angeles Raiders, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York Jets, San Diego and Miami are in. Seattle, Kansas City, Denver, Houston and Baltimore are out. Buffalo, Cleveland and New England are still in contention.
Miami's victory last night clinched a playoff berth for Pittsburgh; a Buffalo victory would have gotten the Bills in. But the Bills still are contending with New England and Cleveland for two places with these possibilities:
The winner of Sunday's Buffalo-New England game and Cleveland will gain the playoffs. Cleveland would win a tie breaker over the Bills on conference record and over the Patriots by head-to-head record.
But, in the event of a Bills-Patriots tie, both would go and Cleveland would be eliminated.