That great prognosticator Buddy Ryan, who has led his Philadelphia Eagles to five victories in their last six meetings with the New York Giants, once said something to the effect that the Giants "know we're going to beat them, they just don't know how."

Bold words from the coach of a now 7-4 team. But talkin' trash for the Eagles on Sunday turned into talkin' thrash. Their 31-13 home-cooked whipping of the previously undefeated Giants not only put the Eagles ahead of the pack for an NFC wild-card spot, it made them think they may be unstoppable.

"We know that no one can stop us on offense," said Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, who completed 17 of 31 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns. "No one understands our offense. We don't even understand it."

Actually, understanding is something a rational person shouldn't attempt to do when trying to digest what happened this past wacky weekend, when the best teams played like the awful ones and the awful ones played like the 49ers. That is, the 49ers of previous weeks. Even they lost, 28-17, to the Los Angeles Rams, ending their unbeaten streak at a record-tying 18 games.

All the first-place teams that played Sunday lost. The schizophrenic Cincinnati Bengals were run over by Indianapolis's Eric Dickerson, who rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown in the Colts' 34-20 victory. Just like old times, right Eric?

"I'm not going to say it was like old times," said Dickerson, who got his 59th 100-yard game, moving past Jim Brown into second place on the career list behind Walter Payton. "It was just a win."

All three NFC leaders had a nightmare of a weekend. Previously a combined 29-1, each played its toughest division rival -- Chicago at Minnesota, Giants at Eagles, Rams at San Francisco -- and lost. Big. You can hear their frustration.

Coach Mike Ditka, after the Bears were hammered by the Vikings, 41-13: "Once the truck hit me, I did not bother getting up. I just lay there and watched."

Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who had no sacks and one tackle, on losing to the Eagles: "I hate losing to those. . . . "

Forty-Niners safety Ronnie Lott: "The Rams always play us tough because they know us so well. The last thing I want to do, though, is lose to them" at home.

The Giants, Bears and 49ers could have clinched their divisions, making it the first time three teams did so after only 11 games in the same season. The Giants instead had to settle for clinching a wild-card berth.

The NFL office announced yesterday the Giants are in the playoffs because the worst conference record they can achieve is 8-4, better than any potential rival. The Giants can clinch the NFC East with any combination of victories and Eagles losses totaling two.

The Vikings are the biggest surprise of the season. Twice. Suddenly, they are explosive, with Herschel Walker gaining 176 total yards against the Bears. Minnesota has won four in a row and at 5-6 is still in the hunt for a wild-card spot.

But parity has not completely run amok. There has been one constant: the New England Patriots. They lost again, this time to the Phoenix Cardinals, 34-14. The 1-10 Patriots have lost nine in a row, the club's longest losing streak since 1981, when they lost nine consecutive games to finish 2-14.

The Patriots are shooting for the No. 1 draft pick, unlike the Eagles, who are aiming for the playoffs. Ryan finally may have found a way to contain his team's volatility, those up and down tendencies. Philadelphia has won five straight games -- a first in the Ryan era -- and players say they are beginning to find the right mix.

"I think you can say that, yes," said offensive tackle Ron Heller, a large factor in the nullification of Taylor. "I don't know what it is or what is happening, but we certainly are beginning to believe in ourselves."

Said Ryan: "No question that win really helped us a lot. {The Giants are} going on; they're in the playoffs already. We're still trying to get there."

A half-dozen teams are jockeying for three NFC wild-card berths, and Philadelphia leads the pack. Green Bay is next at 6-5. Washington (6-5), Minnesota and New Orleans (both 5-6) have realistic chances.

"I feel good about what we've done," said Philadelphia tight end Keith Jackson. And in typical Eagles fashion he guaranteed that his team would be in "the thick of things" when playoff time comes around.