NEW ORLEANS -- For adding two more wild-card teams to the playoff party, one would have thought the NFL had turned itself into the NHL or the NBA. The insiders and the touts all cried and moaned about how the NFL had ruined the playoffs, how some sub-.500 fraud would get in and make the thing a complete farce.

The NFL playoffs are just fine.

The Saturday games -- Redskins-Eagles and Dolphins-Chiefs -- are absolutely compelling. Redskins-Eagles could be the best game of the entire playoffs. The Redskins suffered their most humiliating defeat in years in their last trip to Philly and Joe Gibbs doesn't care for Buddy Ryan one bit. Plus the winner probably is the only NFC team capable of beating the 49ers.

Sunday's Bengals-Oilers match is much like Redskins-Eagles, meaning plenty of bad blood. The Bengals have been up and down, but they have gone further recently than any other AFC team and are capable of upsetting the Raiders, Dolphins or Bills. The only relatively bland matchup in the first round is Bears-Saints. And if Troy Aikman doesn't get his shoulder separated, this would be Bears-Cowboys, a marquee event.

As is, the worst team in the field is the 8-8 Saints. The NFL had an 8-8 nonstrike team in the playoffs before: the Cleveland Browns in 1985.

These Saints aren't bad; a little boring maybe, but not bad. To get into the playoffs they won at Cincinnati, at San Francisco and beat the Rams twice in the second half of the season. The second victory over Los Angeles came in the Superdome Monday night, a wild 20-17 New Year's Eve win on Morten Andersen's 24-yard field goal with two seconds left.

It's only the second time the Saints have made the playoffs. In 1987 the Saints were a wild-card team, but nobody was suggesting they shouldn't have been in postseason play. The Saints were 12-3 then. "I was thinking about that team earlier today," tight end John Tice said. "I was trying to figure out which team was better. That year our running game was really dominant. This year there's a little more of everything. We can do things with the passing game we couldn't do then."

Linebacker Rickey Jackson said there's no comparison: "This team is better. That was a scab year; you can't count three of those victories."

There's a reason the Bears were rooting for the Rams to beat the Saints and put the Cowboys at Soldier Field on Sunday: The Saints can beat them. On a frozen field in January, you have to run and New Orleans can do that. Craig "Ironhead" Heyward and the crazy-legged Irishman, Gill Fenerty, led a 10-play, run-only drive that put the Saints up, 14-3, on the Rams. "We don't do any running and dancing or go into end zone celebrations," Heyward said. "We run, we drop the ball, not spike it."

What made the Saints' run to get into the playoffs fairly impressive was that they had no quarterback when the season started. Bobby Hebert held out, then New Orleans traded with Dallas for young Steve Walsh, who had to learn on the job.

He isn't out of training yet either, as his 11-of-26 performance against the Rams indicates. Walsh threw so poorly during one stretch it looked as if he'd pass the Cowboys to the playoffs after all. The only break in the wild cheering came when nearly 70,000 booed him during that especially bad stretch. "I don't hear the boos, but I don't hear the cheers either," he said. "I have to justify {the trade} every time I go out there.

"The defense has played great the whole year, but the offense -- we haven't played four quarters in a game yet this year. I know I haven't. I've been in a slump."

Even in a slump, the Saints are capable of beating an injured, sliding Bears team; the Cowboys without Aikman are not.

Still, Chicago will win and go to Giants Stadium. Mike Ditka is at his best during times like these, when his team is down and apparently vulnerable. The Bears defense will have to overcome the Saints, and their own quarterback, Mike Tomczak. Only great quarterback performances beat the Bears (the Redskins twice, Niners twice) in the playoffs and Walsh isn't capable of that just yet.

The Bengals, not the Saints, are the team that should feel lucky to be in the playoffs. But if the Oilers couldn't beat the Bengals two weeks ago with Warren Moon they certainly won't in the playoffs without him.

We keep waiting for Steve DeBerg to turn into a pumpkin and throw the heartbreaking interception he's thrown throughout his career. Guess what? It's not going to happen. Running backs Barry Word and Christian Okoye, both healthy, make DeBerg even better. Chiefs upset the Fish in Miami.

The Game is in Philadelphia. It could be the best first-round game in 10 years. The Eagles, if they don't win -- they haven't won a playoff game yet under Buddy Ryan -- will reinforce the tag of chokers. They are as desperate to win a playoff game as the Redskins are.

The Eagles are training in Tampa? That makes for too much sunshine and a travel day. The Redskins control Randall Cunningham better than anybody. The Redskins have won tough road playoff games before. The Redskins will win a close one but lose a close one at Candlestick to a 49ers team that will have little trouble with the Bears or Giants, it hardly matters.

History says the Niners can lose, yes. They were 13-2 in 1987 and were blown out at home by the wild-card Vikings. But it won't happen again.

These playoffs will follow form. Buffalo -- with Jim Kelly or Frank Reich -- won't lose at home, not even in the AFC title game against the Raiders. You still can't trust Jay Schroeder. Niners-Bills in the Super Bowl to finish the expanded -- and improved -- playoffs.