Nine teams have clinched playoff berths, and seven teams remain alive for the three remaining slots heading into the final weekend of a season of radical changes in the upper echelon of the NFL.

Three of the four teams in the AFC and NFC championship games a year ago--Denver, the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons--are out of the playoffs. Only the Minnesota Vikings, who rescued their season after a 2-4 start, have a chance in the '99 postseason.

The closest contender for pick-of-the-litter elite status this year would be the 13-2 St. Louis Rams, with the league's highest-scoring offense and a defense that has allowed the fewest points. Yet, despite their dramatic turnaround, despite seven straight victories going into their season finale against Philadelphia, there are still doubters, if only because of the Rams' pillow-soft schedule.

They have only a single victory against a team with a winning record, their 27-10 victory over the now 8-7 Baltimore Ravens in the first week of the season. Their two defeats came against Tennessee and Detroit, and they haven't been truly tested by a quality team since a 24-21 loss to the Lions Nov. 7.

In the AFC, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts--the three teams already qualified for the postseason--are clearly the class of the conference. But once again, questions persist at every turn.

Jacksonville, tied with the Colts and Rams for the league's best record at 13-2, took a beating Sunday in Tennessee, and quarterback Mark Brunell strained his knee, an injury that will keep him out of the Jaguars' final regular season game. The good news is that the Jaguars won't be playing during the wild-card round, giving Brunell an extra week to heal.

The Jaguars had reeled off 11 straight victories before the 41-14 loss to the 12-3 Titans. But the Jaguars, like the Rams, have played a relatively easy schedule. Both their losses have been to the Titans, and they've also faced one other winning team, beating Baltimore twice.

You like Tennessee? Off Sunday's victory and the five-touchdown-pass performance of quarterback Steve McNair, confidence might be justified. But McNair threw only one touchdown pass in his previous six starts and has struggled at times since returning from an early-season back operation.

The Titans also have several disturbing blemishes on their record, including a 24-22 loss to San Francisco Oct. 3, a 17-0 loss to Miami Nov. 7 and a 41-14 disaster against the Ravens Dec. 5. To their credit, they did beat the Rams, 24-21, on Oct. 31.

The Colts have run off 12 straight victories, and their young offense reminds many of the good old days in Dallas under Jimmy Johnson with quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is in his second year, favorite target Marvin Harrison is in his fourth, and running back Edgerrin James is one of the most impressive rookie backs in league history. But they're all very young, have not experienced playoff football and may not be quite ready to make a full-blown run toward Atlanta and Super Bowl XXXIV.

The Vikings finally are playing up to their preseason billing as a potential Super Bowl team and still could win the NFC Central by beating Detroit Sunday, if Tampa Bay also loses at Chicago. Both Minnesota and Tampa Bay would then finish 10-6, but the Vikings would win the title by virtue of a better conference record.

Minnesota, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Detroit and the Washington Redskins have clinched playoff spots. Dallas, the New York Giants, Carolina and Green Bay, all 7-8, are vying for the last NFC berth. The Cowboys are the only team that controls its playoff possibilities. A win over the Giants Sunday at Texas Stadium clinches a wild card.

The Giants will get in if they beat the Cowboys and Green Bay loses to the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field. Green Bay can clinch a wild-card berth with a win against Arizona, a Giants win against Dallas, and by beating New York and Carolina in best net points in conference games. Carolina can clinch a wild card with a win over New Orleans, wins by Green Bay and the Giants, and by ending up with more points in conference games than the Packers and Giants. In any case, the sixth NFC qualifier will go in with an 8-8 record, only the second NFC team to do so in league history.

In the AFC, the Dolphins, Chiefs and Seahawks are vying for the two remaining spots.

NFL Playoff Picture

NFC EAST

Washington -- Has clinched NFC East title. Can clinch first-round playoff bye with a win AND a Tampa Bay loss AND a Minnesota loss or tie.

Dallas -- Can clinch playoff berth with a win.

N.Y. Giants -- Can clinch playoff berth with EITHER a win AND EITHER a Green Bay loss or tie OR by beating Green Bay and Carolina in best net points in conference games (currently N.Y. Giants -56, Green Bay 0, Carolina -18) OR a tie AND a Green Bay loss AND a Carolina loss.

NFC CENTRAL

Tampa Bay -- Has clinched a playoff berth. Can clinch NFC Central title with EITHER a win or tie OR a Minnesota loss or tie. Can clinch a first-round playoff bye with EITHER a win or tie OR a Minnesota loss or tie AND a Washington loss or tie.

Minnesota -- Has clinched a playoff berth. Can clinch NFC Central title and a first-round playoff bye with a win and a Tampa Bay loss.

Detroit -- Has clinched a playoff berth.

Green Bay -- Can clinch a playoff berth with EITHER a win AND EITHER a N.Y. Giants win AND by beating N.Y. Giants and Carolina in best net points in conference games (currently N.Y. Giants -56, Green Bay 0, Carolina -18) OR N.Y. Giants-Dallas game ends in a tie AND a Carolina loss or tie OR a tie AND N.Y. Giants-Dallas game ends in a tie AND a Carolina loss or tie.

NFC WEST

St. Louis -- Has clinched NFC West title, a first-round playoff bye and home field throughout the playoffs.

Carolina -- Can clinch a playoff berth with a win AND EITHER a N.Y. Giants win and a Green Bay win AND by beating N.Y. Giants and Green Bay in best net points in conference games (currently N.Y. Giants -56, Green Bay 0, Carolina -18) OR N.Y. Giants-Dallas game ends in a tie.

AFC EAST

Indianapolis -- Has clinched AFC East title and a first-round playoff bye. Can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with EITHER a win AND EITHER a Jacksonville loss or tie OR by beating Jacksonville in best net points in conference games (currently Indianapolis +67 to Jacksonville +81) OR a Jacksonville loss AND a Tennessee loss.

Buffalo -- Has clinched AFC playoff berth.

Miami -- Can clinch AFC playoff berth with EITHER two wins OR a win against the N.Y. Jets tonight AND EITHER a Buffalo win OR a Kansas City loss or tie OR a Seattle loss or tie OR with a win over Washington AND EITHER a Kansas City loss or tie OR a Seattle loss or tie OR EITHER a Kansas City loss or a Seattle loss.

AFC CENTRAL

Jacksonville -- Has clinched playoff berth. Can clinch AFC Central title and a first-round playoff bye with a win or tie OR a Tennessee loss or tie. Can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win AND EITHER an Indianapolis loss or tie OR by beating Indianapolis in best net points in conference games (currently Indianapolis +67 to Jacksonville +81).

Tennessee -- Has clinched a playoff berth. Can clinch AFC Central title and a first-round playoff bye with a win AND a Jacksonville loss. Can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win AND a Jacksonville loss AND an Indianapolis loss.

AFC WEST

Seattle -- Can clinch AFC West title with EITHER a win or a Kansas City loss or tie. Can clinch playoff berth with a tie AND two Miami losses.

Kansas City -- Can clinch AFC West title with a win AND a Seattle loss or tie. Can clinch playoff berth with EITHER a win AN EITHER a Miami loss to N.Y. Jets OR a Buffalo loss OR a tie AND two Miami losses.