PRO FOOTBALL / BOB OATES : Picking the Top Teams Is as Easy as A-B-C

As the pro football postseason continues with doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday, the survivors are five division champions and three wild-card clubs composing, as a group, an unusually strong NFL playoff field.

There isn't an outclassed team in the lot.

It would be an upset, of course, if Atlanta wins at Washington on Saturday--or if Kansas City wins at Buffalo on Sunday--but it wouldn't be a huge surprise.

With their best game, the Falcons and the Chiefs have a chance, and so do all the others who have made it to the second round. If that wasn't true in past years, the league is getting more competitive, and better balanced.

In the NFL's 72nd season, its best teams divide into A, B and C classes:

--A. It is likely that either Buffalo or Washington will win the Super Bowl on Jan. 26 in Minneapolis. The irony of the season is that even though the NFL has developed more parity than ever--with 18 of the 28 franchises near or above .500--there are two dominant teams.

--B. Six other teams are good enough to reach at least the conference championship round on Jan. 12: Dallas, Denver, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit and Kansas City.

--C. Out of the playoffs but not out of mind are Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco and Chicago. In the regular season, overall, the Eagles, Saints, 49ers and Bears were 42-22, for a .657 record.

The NFL's top 10:

1. BUFFALO BILLS (13-3)

Coach: Marv Levy.

Quarterback: Jim Kelly.

Offense: No-huddle.

The Bills aren't as well balanced as the Redskins. But more of the Bills are superstars, five in all--quarterback Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton and defensive end Bruce Smith. Moreover, the Bills are especially motivated to win the Super Bowl this year, having missed by one point last year. Finally, with Kelly, the Buffalo offense is the league's most aggressive and fastest moving. On a neutral indoor field, those assets ought to be decisive in the Super Bowl.

2. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (14-2)

Coach: Joe Gibbs.

Quarterback: Mark Rypien.

Offense: One-back.

Under Gibbs, the Redskins play solid, effective football every year. They aren't, however, talent-heavy. They don't get to the Super Bowl every winter. What they need is what they have just had--a down year by their usual rivals: San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, the Rams, the New York Giants. Of the old guard, only Washington and Dallas showed any spunk in 1991, and they split. The Redskins, unlike every other NFL team, have a balance of strength in all quarters. And with Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, their offense--three-receivers, one-back--is a carefully coached thing of beauty.

3. DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5)

Coach: Jimmy Johnson.

Quarterback: Steve Beuerlein.

Offense: Multiple-set

In Detroit on Sunday, it won't be easy for the Cowboys to prove they are the league's third-best team. And a week later in Washington, if they get there, it will be harder. Home teams win 70% of the NFL's playoff games--closer to 80% in Round 2 and thereafter. But Johnson has matured into one of the league's top two or three game planners, helping the Cowboys win seven games in a row since Beuerlein took over. And they keep doing the right things with the right offensive mix, alternating runs by halfback Emmitt Smith with passes by Beuerlein, who usually finds wide receiver Michael Irvin.

4. DENVER BRONCOS (12-4)

Coach: Dan Reeves.

Quarterback: John Elway.

Offense: Multiple-set

After Dallas, the next five in the second-round field seem almost even. On a neutral field Saturday, in fact, Denver and Houston would figure at even money. But this week the Broncos have a mile-high advantage, unlike last time, when Houston beat them in the Astrodome, 42-14. Next week, if they are in Buffalo, the Broncos will see what it's like to play on the road in the playoffs. Their five assets are Reeves, who has been the AFC's best coach for most of his career, and four players--safeties Steve Atwater and Dennis Smith, linebacker Karl Mecklenburg and Elway.

5. HOUSTON OILERS (12-5)

Coach: Jack Pardee.

Quarterback: Warren Moon.

Offense: Run-and-shoot.

The Oilers haven't been getting the most out of their explosive offense lately. They are not the team that went to Missouri last year and blistered the Chiefs' fine defense. In their last six starts, the Oilers have scored more than two touchdowns only once. At midseason, when they won at Dallas and lost in overtime at Washington, they seemed to be in the NFL's top three. No more. They are missing the three things needed to regain that level: the Moon long ball, a dedication to running the ball--more often and much better--and Ray Childress, their defensive leader, who is hurt.

6. ATLANTA FALCONS (12-5)

Coach: Jerry Glanville.

Quarterback: Chris Miller.

Offense: Run-and-shoot.

This team is 8-2 in its last 10 games and 6-1 since a 56-17 loss at Washington, where the Falcons are 0-7 going into Saturday's rematch. Miller, Deion Sanders and two other starters were injured and out last time. The Falcons have recently run the run-and-shoot more effectively than Houston or Detroit. Miller is good enough, his blocking line is first rate, and receivers Andre Rison and Michael Haynes are spectacular. So are cornerbacks Sanders and Tim McKyer--and Glanville makes the others play. But can they win in Washington?

7. DETROIT LIONS (12-4)

Coach: Wayne Fontes.

Quarterback: Erik Kramer.

Offense: Run-and-shoot.

Most NFL observers don't quite believe the Lions yet, although when they stay in their run-and-shoot mode, they usually get a big game out of either Kramer or running back Barry Sanders--and that's just the way the run-and-shoot is supposed to work. The Lions are constantly tempted to run Sanders in power formations--or to pass exclusively when they fall behind--and when they have yielded to temptation, they have paid for it. One problem is that their best defensive player, linebacker Chris Spielman, is too small. Sunday's opponent, Dallas, has been molded in a much tougher schedule.

8. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (11-6)

Coach: Marty Schottenheimer.

Quarterback: Steve DeBerg.

Offense: Power.

In the last nine weeks of the regular season, the Chiefs, if you throw out one game, scored 163 points and gave up 170. Even with the Seattle result included--19-6--the Chiefs scored 182 and gave up 176, a differential of less than a point a week. Their play-action-power offense, in other words, can barely outscore their defense, and they have a great defense. Such an offense isn't geared to come from behind against good teams--against, say, a playoff opponent such as Buffalo. Schottenheimer is 2-5 in the playoffs. They have a chance, however, because they are among the best play-action-power teams of modern times.

9. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6)

Coach: Rich Kotite.

Quarterback: Jim McMahon.

Offense: Multiple-set.

Kotite was heading for coach-of-the-year honors before Fontes did all those miraculous things in Detroit. Though a rookie head coach, Kotite was within one jump of the playoffs. Give him two ifs and he's in the Super Bowl next year: If his defense can play at this year's level, and if Randall Cunningham comes all the way back.

10. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-6)

Coach: Jim Mora.

Quarterback: Bobby Hebert.

Offense: Multiple-set.

The question now is how the Saints will react to the disappointment of another quick fall in the playoffs. They must regroup psychologically and improve their depth. Their fans are the most frustrated in the NFL today only because they grossly underestimated the effects of losing their entire backfield and all four cornerbacks. Hebert has become one of the NFL's great quarterbacks.

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