Not only was the back door to the National Football League playoffs bolted shut yesterday, but there was no light showing through the keyhole, either.

This may explain why hearts were torn apart in Denver and Washington and goal posts were torn apart in New England.

And how about the New York Jets? They tore apart Cleveland, 37-10, in New Jersey and this, coupled with New England's 34-23 victory over Cincinnati, means that the Jets and Patriots will play in the American Conference wild-card game in the Meadowlands at 4 p.m. Saturday. The winner will advance to play the Raiders in their Los Angeles hideout.

This also spelled elimination for the Denver Broncos (11-5).

"If someone had said going into the season that we could be 11-5 and not be in the playoffs, I would have gone home," said Denver Coach Dan Reeves. "I guess we just didn't win the right games.

"We'll just accept it and become a better team because of it. I'm awfully proud of our guys."

In New England, the mood was decidedly more positive.

"I always expected it to happen," New England Coach Ray Berry said about the Patriots reaching the postseason, "but it's absolutely incredible that it has."

Forgive Berry's incredulity. Remember, the Patriots (11-5) never have won a playoff game in the NFL. They won one in the American Football League back in 1963, but who remembers, right?

After the game, five fans were injured when part of the goal post they carried out of the stadium struck a power line a quarter of a mile from the stadium. All were hospitalized. Last night, four were listed in serious condition with electrical burns and a fifth was treated for shock.

In New Jersey, Johnny Hector, running back for the 11-5 Jets, said, "We feel we can do anything if we play together and play the ball we're capable of."

The Browns (8-8) were down but not out yesterday. As champs of the proletarian Central Division, they'll play at Miami (12-4) in a conference semifinal game in two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Redskins (10-6) were eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in four years because San Francisco rallied to defeat Dallas, 31-16, at Candlestick Park.

The defending Super Bowl champion 49ers (10-6) will play the New York Giants (10-6) in the National Conference wild-card game at Giants Stadium at 1 p.m. Sunday. The winner will play the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field the following weekend. (Originally, both the AFC and NFC wild-card games were scheduled for this Sunday, but since the Jets and Giants will play host to the games and since both play in Giants Stadium, the AFC game was moved to Saturday, the league announced yesterday.)

Maybe Washington can take solace in the fact that it took an intricate tiebreaker system to erase a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East at 10-6, between the Redskins, Dallas and the New York Giants.

The tiebreakers eliminated the Redskins this way: the Cowboys won the division title because they had the best won-lost record (4-0) in games among the three teams. Because of a superior record in conference games, the Giants (8-4) beat out the Redskins (6-6) and 49ers (7-5) for the first wild-card spot. The 49ers took the final wild-card spot because of their head-to-head victory over the Redskins, 35-8, in Week 13.

Sunday was also a day for Miami and Chicago to put one more coat of super-gloss on their respective seasons.

The Bears defeated Detroit, 37-17, in the Silverdome and finished 15-1. In all, Chicago yielded 198 points this season, thereby becoming only the second team to yield fewer than 200 points in a 16-game season. Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain gave up 195 in 1978, when the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.

The Bears had some flair yesterday -- 308-pound rookie William (The Refrigerator) Perry scooping up a fumble and taxiing 58 yards down the football runway before being caught from behind by David Lewis. It set up the Bears' final score. Quoth The Fridge on his return: "You better believe I was out of gas."

And the Bears had the standard fare -- Sir Walter Payton, running back emeritus, performing a rare version of a football triple-double (a la Magic Johnnson): he rushed for 81 yards, caught 55 yards worth of passes and threw a 50-yard pass. Thus, Payton became the first player in league history to surpass 2,000 total yards in three consecutive seasons.

Miami dusted Buffalo, 28-0, to win the AFC Eastern Division title. That's 12 division titles in 15 years (excluding the strike year) for Coach Don Shula, if anybody's counting.

If the Los Angeles Raiders (11-4) lose to the Los Angeles Rams (11-4) tonight in Anaheim, Calif., Miami will have the homefield edge throughout the playoffs. This would mean that if the Raiders and Dolphins reach the AFC title game on Jan. 12 -- hardly a farfetched scenario -- the game would be played in the Orange Bowl.

Meanwhile, Kansas City receiver Stephone Paige shattered an NFL record by catching eight passes for a misprint-reading 309 yards in a 38-34 victory over San Diego. The previous league high was 303 yards set by Jim Benton of the Cleveland Rams in 1945.

If it was surprising that a third-year free agent from Fresno State accomplished this mark, it was not surprising that he did it against the Chargers, who have never been known to stand in the way of a good pass play. Paige later said of his effort, "When I look at it on paper, it's unbelievable."

The honor roll read long for NFL running backs yesterday, too:

*In San Francisco, the 49ers' Roger Craig became the first player in league history to surpass 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in a single season.

*In New Jersey, the Browns' Earnest Byner ran for 101 yards against the Jets. Byner finished with 1,002 yards to join Kevin Mack (1,104 yards) as the NFL's third backfield with two 1,000-yard runners. Previously, Miami's Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris and the Steelers' Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier had accomplished this.

*In Kansas City, the Chargers' Lionel (Little Train) James added 242 yards of running, receiving and kick returning yesterday to set a league mark for all-purpose yardage. James, a 5-foot-6, 172-pound secret until this season, finished with 2,535 yards, 73 more than Terry Metcalf accumulated for St. Louis in 1975.

*In New Orleans, Atlanta's Gerald Riggs ran for 157 yards, boosting his season total to 1,718 yards. The Raiders' Marcus Allen needs 83 yards against the Rams tonight to take the league's rushing title.