However it has happened, by whatever conspiracy of inspired play and dumb luck, the NFL's next-to-last weekend makes a handsome buffet. Available is a sampling of nearly everything we'd like to savor.

The game's best passer ought to at least make it to the conference championship -- and so Dan Marino has once again in Miami. The game's most compelling and stylish runners, Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson, will be snorting in Chicago.

The team with the best record, the Bears, has survived. So has the best coach, Don Shula. And isn't it nice how the football gods have kept Shula humble, by denying his Dolphins a special runner and an exceptional ground defense?

Most of the right defensive players are on hand: Mike Singletary and Richard Dent of the Bears, Andre Tippett of the Patriots and some highly motivated and still unappreciated Rams and Dolphins.

Also, the most heroic headhunters and swiftest game-turners are on display. The Patriots and Rams have terrific special teams; the Rams' Ron Brown and the Bears' Willie Gault are the football pups of Bob Hayes: world-class sprinters tough enough for the NFL.

Maybe, just for the fun of it, as well as to be even more devastating, the Bears will line up in the single wing sometime inside the Rams' five-yard line, with The Fridge at tailback. Talk about impact at the point of attack.

These playoffs welcome an old friend, Raymond Berry, in a new role, as well as a Mr. Robinson who has pretty much lifted the Rams back into prominence on his wide shoulders.

The Dolphins' director of pro player personnel, Charlie Winner, was end coach for the Baltimore Colts when Berry reported as a rookie in 1954.

"I remember walking up to him," Winner recalled, "and saying: 'Welcome to the team, Ray. Glad to have you with us.'

"He snapped: 'It's Raymond.' "

In the Los Angeles Coliseum press box, scouting the Raiders-Patriots AFC semifinal, Winner also mentioned Berry's celebrated attention to detail.

"He would get this tomboy who happened to be hanging around practice a lot to throw the ball near his feet for several minutes each day. He wanted to practice recovering fumbles."

That was 30-some years ago.

Three days ago, one of the Patriots said of New England Coach Raymond Berry: "You know, we work on fumble recoveries. It's one of his rituals. We practice how to jump on the ball -- every player does one every day."

Berry's special teams have caused fumbles on kickoffs and turned them into game-deciding touchdowns the last two weeks. His Patriots also pried the ball loose from a Raiders punt returner and recovered it.

It was the quiet, cerebral Berry who announced not long after he assumed control of the .500 Patriots late in the '84 season: "This team can win the world championship. It just doesn't know it."

What had caused such rampant optimism?


Well, we've been told for years that the Patriots have had superior players. Maybe no coach before had emphasized that there are 100-plus collisions in each football game and that the team best prepared to deal with them usually wins.

One unique mind now outside the NFL was not surprised at all by the Patriots beating the Raiders.

"They have the best all-around team in the conference," George Allen insisted, long before kickoff.

Before John Robinson assumed control, the Rams were one of the sad follies of the league. Not as funny as the Saints, but getting there. The woman who inherited them, Georgia Frontiere, was as dizzy as some of her fellow owners.

Robinson became available when he quit Southern Cal after some controversy that included lots of his players apparently being able to find the end zone each week but not the classroom.

Anyway, Robinson stepped into Anaheim, and Frontiere wisely stepped back. The team has gotten more powerful each of his three seasons.

"It (the NFL) has been easier, in terms of variety," Robinson said. "Every night (at USC) I'd be at somebody's home asking an 18-year-old how his dog was. I gave 104 speeches one year. But that was part of the (college) deal.

"It's harder to win in the pros, but I find the competition really stimulating. And the players are much easier to motivate."

Like his plays against the Bears, Robinson intends to keep his motivational game plan a secret.

"A motivator means you're full of it," he said, adding: "If you're pronounced an expert on it, no one listens. You get irrelevant pretty damn fast."

A Southern California radio guy whose lack of insight is legendary mentioned to Robinson that only Vince Lombardi moved men more ably.

"He had a lot of good players, too," Robinson said, adding: "Now, Bo (Schembechler) is one of the great motivators I know. One of his quarterbacks missed a pass once in practice and Bo kicked him right in the behind. That's motivation."

Robinson also attends to the boring, though necessary, details of football. Unlike the more subdued Berry, he leaves you smiling. Would you expect anything less from John Madden's childhood buddy?

"He's the only guy I know who ever threw a home run," Robinson insists. This happened in high school; Madden was a catcher and, as Robinson recalled:

"They were playing on one of those fields with no right field fence. Or if there was one, it was a block away. Anyway, the game's tied, last inning, the batter swings and misses for strike three and John drops the ball.

"John throws the ball past the first baseman, past the right fielder and the runner goes all the way around the bases for the winning run . . .

"We had fantasies as kids. We were great 49er fans and made a pact that whichever of us became head coach of the 49ers would hire the other. When John actually did get the head job of a Bay Area team, the Raiders, he offered me a job. But I couldn't take it just then [though he later did]."

He wondered if there might be a lesson there, about setting goals at a young age and being obsessed to achieve them. He smiled and shook his head.

"He also was going to catch and I was going to be a great first baseman for the Yankees." This is a man rarely caught in third-and-long anywhere.