This is what has to happen for the Baltimore Ravens to make the playoffs: They have to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the New England Patriots have to lose to the Miami Dolphins, the New York Jets have to lose to the Green Bay Packers, the Cleveland Browns have to lose to the Atlanta Falcons, the Denver Broncos have to lose to the Arizona Cardinals, the Kansas City Chiefs have to lose to the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers have to lose to the Seattle Seahawks.

For Santa Labombarda, the Ravens (7-8) are one of the "easy" permutations he is dealing with these days. Labombarda, 37, works for the statistical arm of the NFL and for all practical purposes he is The Great Unmuddler, the fellow who has been running all the playoff possibilities through his head and over dozens of scratch pads the last few weeks and seems to be the final word on who's in and who's out.

With 19 teams still in contention for a playoff spot, Labombarda is one highly sought, and busy, fellow heading into one of the wildest regular season finales in league history.

"The Ravens were one of the easy ones," Labombarda said. "For them to get in, they have to win and all the 8-7 teams have to lose. They would get in if that would happen because they have the best conference record. . . . But I was up [sorting through possibilities] till about 2 a.m. I do almost everything by hand, but the computer helps with common opponents.

"I've gone through enough trees this week to fell a forest."

Indeed, a printout of the official NFL playoff possibilities took three pages yesterday.

After this weekend, four division winners plus two wild cards in each conference will dance into the playoffs.

"This is very unusual," Labombarda said of 12 of the 16 AFC teams fighting for four of the six AFC playoff spots. The Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans won the West and South divisions, respectively, with victories on Sunday. The Pittsburgh Steelers clinched the AFC North last night.

Like several teams, the Ravens had to call the league office late Sunday to make sure they still had a chance. That happened when their chances at the AFC North title were snuffed by a dramatic 14-13 loss to the Cleveland Browns at Ravens Stadium. Labombarda and others in the NFL crunched the numbers and came back with a thin thread the Ravens currently cling to.

"We're still in the chase," Coach Brian Billick said. "But the moons have to go into alignment, the Dow has to go over 10,000. . . . There are a lot of things that have to happen."

The NFC is much more straightforward. If the New York Giants upset the Philadelphia Eagles at home on Saturday and the Atlanta Falcons beat the Browns on the road Sunday, they grab the two wild-card spots. The Eagles, Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers have won the divisional titles.

If such surges down the stretch, in this case the Ravens trying to sneak in at 8-8, seem to bolster the perception of rampant mediocrity, most league officials argue that all but the lousiest teams benefit.

"It's great for the teams [in contention], for their fans and for the networks," said Ravens owner Art Modell, ending his 42nd year in the NFL. "This is the most surprising thing I've seen in a long time."

Modell's probably is the majority opinion. But Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian is among those not surprised.

"We have internal measurements for potential that we chart after the draft and free agency," said Polian, a member of the league's elite competition committee, "and we sort of figured it would be this way in the AFC."

Polian's Colts (9-6) are vying for a wild-card spot after finishing second to the Titans (10-5) in the AFC South. The Dolphins (9-6), the Patriots (8-7), and Jets (8-7) have a chance at the AFC East title. As Labombarda knows, the tricky part of playoff scenarios is three-team matchups, for divisional championships and wild-card positions.

"Some teams win two-team matchups, but lose when three are tied," he said.

Polian and others believe teams ought to be in a playoff mode long before the final weeks.

"That probably ought to start about midseason," he said.

The competition committee occasionally suggests changes in the playoff format -- and it dreads situations in which a team that wins its division with something like an 11-5 record has to play a team with something like a 9-7 record on the road. That will not happen this season, he said.

The change this season to eight divisions in the NFL means one fewer wild-card team in each conference. The total teams in the playoffs remains at six in each conference, and Giants Vice President-General Manager Ernie Accorsi believes that two more divisional champions boosts integrity.

"And you look at some of our teams," he said, mentioning the Eagles among others. "They could compete in any era."

As for Labombarda, he admits to "a knack" for making sense of what others see as playoff chaos but is happy it lasts only several weeks.

"When I get sick of it," he said, "it's over."