Playoff Field Is Just About Set in the NFL

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Technically, 18 of the NFL’s 28 teams are still alive in the race for playoff berths with two regular-season games remaining. Realistically, the 12 postseason spots are about locked up; it’s a matter of a few details.

“More or less, you know who’s going to be there,” said Detroit running back Barry Sanders, whose 1,355 yards rushing lead the NFC. “It’s really who puts it together the last couple of games to put themselves in the best position.”

The Lions (10-4) are headed for the playoffs, but will they stumble in as a wild card and face a game on the road, where they are 2-4? Or will they win the NFC Central and set themselves up with a week off and a second-round game at the Silverdome, where they are 8-0?


Detroit is only one of the league’s surprises.

When the season began, some said the AFC West had become the NFL’s best division. As it turns out, the NFC East is still toughest, despite the demise of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. The three leaders--Washington (13-1), Dallas and Philadelphia (both 9-5)--are a combined 31-11, three games better than the AFC West’s three leading teams.

Five of the six playoff berths have been determined in the AFC, but only the Redskins have a guaranteed spot in the NFC.

A look at the playoff picture:


The Redskins looked as if they would go undefeated, until Dallas brought them back to earth three weeks ago (24-21 Cowboys victory). In a strange way, that took some pressure off Washington, which seems to be regaining momentum.

Regardless of what happens the final weeks against the Giants and Philadelphia, the NFC East champion Redskins have earned a first-round bye and will have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

Last season an 8-8 team (the New Orleans Saints) staggered into the playoffs, but the standard is a bit higher this season. There are seven teams 9-5 or better, and one of them won’t make the playoffs.

If the San Francisco 49ers lose to the Kansas City Chiefs, the winner of Sunday’s Dallas-Philadelphia game is in the playoffs. Whichever team wins its two remaining games is in for sure.


In the NFC Central, the magic number is two for the Chicago Bears (10-4). If the Bears win, as expected, over Tampa Bay on Saturday and the Lions lose at Green Bay, Chicago would win its seventh division title in eight years. The Bears and Lions would make the playoffs with one victory in the final two games.

Amazing but true: If the Atlanta Falcons (9-5) beat Seattle Sunday and the New Orleans Saints (9-5) lose to the Los Angeles Raiders Monday night, the Falcons would earn their first division title since 1980. If both teams win their remaining games, the Falcons would win the title, based on a better division record.

Two victories by the Saints would guarantee them at least a wild-card berth.

The 49ers are still in the running. They are 8-6 with a third-string quarterback (Steve Bono), but it would take a miracle to make the playoffs. San Francisco would have to win both games and get a lot of help.


The mystery in this conference is who’s going to play whom, and when. The final playoff berth, theoretically, could go to one of four teams: the Miami Dolphins, Jets, Cleveland Browns or Seattle Seahawks. Cleveland and Seattle are 6-8, so it should come down to the Dolphins (8-6) and Jets (7-7).

If the Dolphins and Jets win this week, as favored over San Diego and New England, their final regular-season game against each other would decide the playoff berth. If both teams finish 9-7, the Jets would advance, based on a 2-0 sweep of the Dolphins. It would be New York’s first playoff berth in five years.

Buffalo (12-2) already has clinched its fourth consecutive AFC East title and a first-round bye. One victory in its remaining games would give the Bills home-field advantage in the AFC.


It’s all but over in the AFC Central. Houston (10-4) has clinched its first division title and one victory in its final games against Cleveland and the Giants, would set up a first-round bye followed by a home game.

The Browns have come a long way under rookie coach Bill Belichick, but Gov. Lowell P. Weicker has a better chance of being elected president in 1992 than Cleveland has of making the playoffs. The Browns must win their final two games, hope Miami loses both, the Jets lose to the Patriots and Seattle wins its final two games.

In the AFC West, Denver (10-4), Kansas City and the Los Angeles Raiders (both 9-5) are in the playoffs, but any of the three can still win the division. Sort of.

The Broncos control their destiny; victories against Phoenix and San Diego would clinch the division based on overall record. Even if Denver splits, an unlikely occurrence, the Broncos would win the AFC West if the Raiders lose one of their remaining games against New Orleans and Kansas City.

If the Raiders sweep, they can clinch with one Denver loss.

The Chiefs would clinch their first division title since 1971 with victories at San Francisco and the Raiders and two losses by Denver.