The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles started out 1-3 and everybody was laughing. Now the Chicago Bears and New York Giants are 1-3 in their last four games, and the Cowboys and Eagles, who play Sunday in Philadelphia, are laughing. So are the world champion San Francisco 49ers, who watched their chances to "three-peat" soar during a weekend of quarterback catastrophe.
Injuries changed the playoff picture dramatically, with one exception: The 49ers remain in the driver's seat.
"This is absolutely the best news we could have had," general manager Bill Polian said.
Polian said a magnetic resonance imaging scan of Kelly's left knee confirmed he suffered a partial tear in the medial collateral ligament and a small partial tear in the cartilage in back of the knee in the second quarter of Saturday's 17-13 victory over the New York Giants.
If Kelly is able to play in four weeks, his first game would be Jan. 12-13. That would be the Bills' first playoff game -- if they beat Miami Sunday to ice the AFC East.
* GIANTS -- Phil Simms is out four to six weeks with a sprained right foot that might be a fracture. The Giants have lost three of four after their 10-0 start and face the Phoenix Cardinals Sunday with Jeff Hostetler.
"Things don't look good," coach Bill Parcells said of Simms.
* BEARS -- Jim Harbaugh is out for the season with a separated shoulder. They have lost three of four after a 9-1 start.
* CHIEFS -- Steve DeBerg remained hospitalized yesterday after suffering a broken left little finger. He had a small pin inserted into the distal phalanx and was kept in the hospital to protect against infection.
The Chiefs called him questionable for Sunday's game against San Diego. They had won four in a row until losing to Houston and falling out of first place in the AFC West.
* BENGALS -- With quarterback Boomer Esiason nursing assorted arm and leg aches, the Bengals have lost three of four, but can win the AFC Central by beating the Oilers Sunday in Cincinnati and then the Browns.
* PACKERS -- Anthony Dilweg sprained an arch against the Eagles and was replaced by Blair Kiel.
"We'll have to wait and see if Anthony will be available this week," coach Lindy Infante said.
EAGLES -- Their 31-0 victory over Green Bay clinched a playoff spot. They have lost two of their last three, but have won six of their last eight. Their two latest losses were close ones to Buffalo and Miami.
Their quarterback, Randall Cunningham, is so healthy that backup Jim McMahon completed his first pass as an Eagle Sunday in a mop-up role.
"Hey, Randall, I heard nobody wants to play us," coach Buddy Ryan said.
Cunningham's spectacular leap into the end zone to make it 24-0 scared teammate Reggie White, who said: "I told him to stay out of the air, because if he goes in the air and gets hurt, he's going to have to deal with me."
* RAIDERS -- They have won four of five and taken the AFC West lead with Jay Schroeder regaining confidence after a midseason slump. With Willie Gault and Bo Jackson, nobody can match their big-play speed.
* OILERS -- They have won four of their last five and Warren Moon is on a roll. They can win the AFC Central against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
* DOLPHINS -- Have won three of four and have one of the all-time healthiest quarterbacks in Dan Marino. Miami also may have its best receiver back in the lineup. Mark Clayton, sidelined since Nov. 11 by a knee injury, resumes practicing in pads tomorrow, coach Don Shula said.
* REDSKINS -- Winners of four of five and have Mark Rypien back from midseason injury.
* 49ERS -- With last night's 26-10 decision, they have won 13 of 14 and can afford to put Joe Montana on cruise control until the playoffs.
If the Cowboys beat the Eagles Sunday in Philadelphia and the Falcons in Atlanta, they will become the first team since the 1975 Baltimore Colts to bounce from worst to the playoffs in one season. The Cowboys can clinch Sunday if they win and the Packers lose to the Lions.
"I like our chances the way we are playing right now," coach Jimmy Johnson said.
Typically, the Lions played their best game of the season hours after being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs Sunday.
"We're a few players away yet," coach Wayne Fontes said yesterday after reviewing the 38-21 victory over the Bears. "We're not on a par with the 49ers yet."
A sigh was heard in San Francisco.
The Colts are still mathematically alive, but it was time for coach Ron Meyer to reach for the basketball analogies yesterday in describing quarterback Jeff George.
"Maybe it's because they come from the same state, but he reminds me a lot of what a Larry Bird can do on a basketball court. He has that canniness about him that allows him to make the big plays. He might not hit three-pointers every time, but he's the guy you want shooting the ball," Meyer said.