Hello. NFL public relations. Can I help you?" "Yes. I'd like some information on the playoff possibilities for the Washington Redskins."

"Certainly, sir. Have you eaten lunch yet?"

"No. Why?"

"Because this may take a while."

"How long?"

"Let me put it this way. If you have plans for the weekend, cancel."

"Okay. I understand that if the Redskins beat the Cardinals on Sunday, they win the division, and they're in the playoffs. Right?"

"Right."

"What if they lose?"

"If the Redskins lose, they're either out of the playoffs, or they're in the playoffs, depending on what some other teams do."

"Which other teams?"

"The Giants, the Rams, the Cowboys, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Calgary Flames, the women's varsity hockey team at Yale and Team Xerox."

"Any other teams?"

"Yes, the A-Team. But only if Mr. T. comes off injured reserve."

"I'm interested in the wild cards. How does that work?"

"Deuces and one-eyed jacks are wild. Read 'em and weep, sucker."

"Huh?"

"Excuse me. I used to work in Atlantic City."

"I meant the NFL wild cards."

"Well, they tell me Neil Lomax gets pretty crazy after two beers."

"No. I mean which NFC teams will be the playoff wild cards?"

"It's very complicated. Leonard Shapiro wrote a story about it in this very newspaper yesterday. He had permutations you wouldn't believe. Poor dear."

"What happened to him?"

"He was last seen in a computer store, going after a row of IBM-PCs with a sledgehammer."

"Let's say that this weekend the Cardinals beat the Redskins, the 49ers beat the Rams, the Giants beat the Saints and the Cowboys beat the Dolphins. That would give the Cardinals, Giants, Rams, Redskins and Cowboys the same record, 10-6. What happens then?"

"The Cardinals would definitely make the playoffs, because they would win the NFC East. And then we'd go to our tie-breaking procedure to determine the two NFC wild card teams."

"Is it difficult to understand?"

"It's so simple even a child can understand it. Albert Einstein's child. On a good day."

"Who thought it up?"

"The NFL competition committee."

"Who are they?"

"Four men: From Ford, the former marketing director of the Edsel. From the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, the chief engineer at Three Mile Island. From the CIA, the man who typed up the Nicaragua assassination manual. And from Redskin Park, Joe Theismann's interpreter."

"And what is the tie-breaking procedure for the wild cards?"

"Joe Gibbs is given a chair to throw. If he hits Tom Landry, the Redskins are a wild card, and so are the Giants . . . "

"I don't believe you."

"Okay, John Riggins gets into his pick-up truck and guns the engine. If he runs over Bill Parcells, the Redskins are a wild card, and so are the Rams . . . "

"Nope."

"Okay, Landry is given a Bible. If he . . . "

"Be serious."

"Okay. This is for real: If the Redskins, Giants, Rams and Cowboys all have 10-6 records, the tie breaker is most net points in conference games. So far, Dallas is minus-4, the Rams are plus-19 and the Redskins are plus-61. The only way the Redskins can miss being a wild card is if they lose to the Cardinals by 43 more points than the Rams lose to the 49ers. In that case, the Rams and the Giants are the wild card teams."

"What happens in Dallas?"

"Who do you think I am? Bobby Ewing? The simplest way for Dallas to make the playoffs is if Jupiter collides with Mars. And even that would depend on whether the Cowboys could recover 73 more planet fragments than the Rams and Redskins combined."

"I'm confused."

"You're confused? Do you know why I have this job? I'm the third person in this job this morning. The first guy got all the way to the fourth tie breaker before becoming a bowl of oatmeal. The second was carted off in a straitjacket, screaming, "I am the Egg Man, and The Walrus is Butz!"

"Can I ask you a few more questions?"

"Go ahead, make my day."

"I notice that the last option in all the tie-breaker contingencies is a coin flip. Who flips the coin? What kind of coin is used? Who gets to call the coin?"

"Mary Lou Retton flips the coin. Actually, she doesn't flip it. She holds it in her hand as she does a 3 1/2 twist off the pommel horse, landing in the pike tuck Ollieburger position. We use a quarter. The owners of the teams involved are present for Mary Lou's flip. The older owner gets to call the coin. If both owners are the same age, the one with the most money gets to call the coin, and the one with the least money gets to keep the coin. And maybe Mary Lou, too."

"Thank you so much for all this. You've been very helpful."

"You're welcome. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a question."

"Shoot."

"We're looking for better ways to break ties . . . "

"Try Garo Yepremian."

"Excuse me?"

"Slight joke. Tie maker, tie breaker."

"Well, do you have a better way?"

"Yes. Take the coaches of all the tied teams and lock them in a film room with a nonstop, 72-hour Ingmar Bergman retrospective in the original Swedish. The first ones out get jobs with the Buffalo Bills and the Indianapolis Colts. The last ones out get the wild cards. It's their choice."