Only one other time in modern National Football League history have so many teams been fighting for playoff berths with one game remaining in the regular season.
The AFC, with only Denver and Cleveland having qualified, has nine of 14 teams still alive, the most ever, according to the NFL. Those nine AFC teams alone create 64 playoff scenarios.
The NFC, with the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins having qualified, needs only one more team to complete the field. In all, 15 NFL teams are in contention on the final weekend, and the only other time that happened was in 1981.
The NFC playoff structure could be complete by Saturday. If the Minnesota Vikings (8-6) defeat the NFC East champion Redskins (10-4) in Minneapolis, the Vikings will get the second wild-card spot.
But if the Redskins win, the St. Louis Cardinals can sneak in as the visiting team in the wild-card game with a win in Dallas. The Cowboys could end a frustrating season as the conference spoilers, having ended the Los Angeles Rams' playoff hopes last night, 29-21.
A Cardinals victory and Vikings loss would leave each team 8-7 and the Cardinals would get the berth because of a better record within the NFC.
The Redskins must win Sunday to have a chance to play at home in their first 1987 playoff game. If the Bears lose to the Los Angeles Raiders (5-9) and the Redskins win, they will open the playoffs here against the 1985 Super Bowl champions or the wild-card team, if it is from the NFC West.
If the wild-card survivor is not from the West -- meaning, St. Louis or Minnesota -- it would play against the West champion and the Bears and Redskins would meet in the other NFC semifinal. Two teams from the same division cannot play in the conference semifinals, negating a New Orleans-San Francisco matchup.
The Redskins could play the NFC championship game here, if the opponent is the wild-card survivor or -- with a complicated sequence of events -- the Bears.
The only thing complicated about the NFC picture is the home-field advantage scramble.
The 49ers are currently in control of the home-field advantage. But if the Rams should upset San Francisco Sunday, while the Saints (11-3) beat Green Bay in New Orleans, then the Saints would win the division and stay at home and San Francisco would be the host in the wild-card game.
Now for the hard part -- the AFC, where three teams are alive in each division. Denver (9-4-1) and Cleveland (9-5) are in, no matter what. Indianapolis, Houston and Seattle control their destinies. But Houston, Miami, New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego will eliminate themselves with a loss.
An Indianapolis victory at home over Tampa Bay will put the Colts (8-6) in the playoffs for the first time this decade. Seattle (9-5) has to win on the road at Kansas City to assure itself the first wild-card spot. Houston (8-6), playing at home, can win a wild-card spot by beating Cincinnati.
But in the wild-and-wacky world of the AFC, having those three teams win would be too easy. So many other possibilities exist.
Miami (8-6) can win the AFC East title by beating New England (7-7) in the final game of the regular season, Monday night -- but only if Indianapolis loses to Tampa Bay. Conversely, New England can win the East by beating Miami, and having Indianapolis lose. For New England to win a wild-card spot, Houston, Pittsburgh and San Diego must all lose.
The AFC's director of information, Pete Abitante, was virtually pulling his hair out yesterday trying to make sure of all the wild-card possibilities.
One bizarre one has the Pittsburgh Steelers getting a wild-card spot two different ways. If Pittsburgh wins and Seattle loses, the Steelers (8-6) would get one wild-card spot based on having a better conference record than any other 9-6 team.
Also, Pittsburgh could get in with a Seattle victory as long as Houston loses and any of the following three things happen: Indianapolis loses, Miami loses or San Diego wins.
In the AFC Central, Houston (8-6) can control one spot by winning, but can win the division if the Steelers beat Cleveland in Three Rivers Stadium, where Cleveland has won only once.
In the AFC West, Denver already has beaten San Diego (8-6) on the road, and figures to win at home to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But two other AFC teams have a chance at playing two games at home.
Cleveland could have that honor if the Browns beat Pittsburgh while San Diego upsets Denver. A Seattle victory, combined with losses by Denver and Cleveland, would keep the Seahawks at home for the playoffs.
San Diego, which at 8-1 appeared to be an absolute lock for the playoffs, cannot win the West. Not only that, but the Chargers have to win at Denver, then hope for Pittsburgh and Houston to lose. San Diego would win in a tie breaker against Miami for the second wild-card spot (better AFC record) if the Dolphins should lose to New England.