Dull dozen In shaky, injured postseason field, only 49ers, Raiders stand alone


If you watched the not-so-grand conclusion to the NFL's first-ever Week 17, you caught an eyeful. Here's hoping it isn't catching.

What you saw this weekend was something like this:

* A scarcity of games that meant something. (Was there any suspense in learning who would fill out the AFC's dance card? Didn't think so.)

* An epidemic of backup and/or third-string quarterbacks. After seeing the dropoff in talent at the position, a glut of underclass quarterbacks no doubt will bolt to the NFL.

* A galaxy of stars smiling along the sideline. Doesn't Buffalo's Bruce Smith have a handsome smile?

* A raft of teams going through the motions. Why didn't the Bills just mail in their score? Did the New York Giants get part of the fourth-quarter concessions in Foxboro?

* Houston's run-and-shoot offense search out and destroy the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-14. And this was supposed to be the good game?

It was enough to make you wonder if the network folks might ask for a rebate on the NFL's new format. But it did serve a purpose. At least now we can begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. With that in mind, let's preview the playoff field.

Ready for prime time

1. San Francisco 49ers (14-2).

Until somebody shows the 49ers can be beaten in a game that counts, you've got to think the defending champs can make it three in a row. Yesterday they were among those teams going through the motions. Quarterback Joe Montana played the first half, Steve Young the second. Young got the script right this week and the 49ers prevailed over Minnesota 20-17 in Montana-like fashion.

2. Los Angeles Raiders (12-4).

Buffalo may be top-seeded in the AFC, and the Raiders will have to win in frigid Rich Stadium if they're to get to the Super Bowl. But the Silver-and-Black bunch has played more games (nine) against winning teams than anybody in the playoffs. And the Raiders' record of 6-3 is second-best only to the 49ers' 5-0. Plus, quarterback Jay Schroeder, who's thrown for 11 touchdowns in the last four weeks, is peaking.

If only he hadn't gotten hurt

3. Buffalo Bills (13-3).

The Bills showed no pride in a desultory 29-14 loss to the Washington Redskins. Backup Frank Reich worked a scoreless first half at quarterback (7-for-14, 88 yards), and then Gale Gilbert took over. The Bills say they expect injured Jim Kelly to be ready for the second round of the playoffs, but that may be optimistic. Which could place the load on Reich's shoulders. After only five starts -- and four wins -- he doesn't figure to be ready for the burden.

4. New York Giants (13-3).

The Giants haven't been the same since they got hammered in Philadelphia in Week 12. Losing quarterback Phil Simms in Week 15 didn't help, either. Jeff Hostetler is a nice backup, but he struggled to beat the pitiful New England Patriots yesterday, 13-10.

5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5).

Quarterback Steve DeBerg's left pinky finger, dislocated two weeks ago, took a beating Saturday in Chicago. DeBerg is tough, and he is having an incredible year, but that little finger is all that separates the Chiefs from Steve Pelluer and oblivion. They open in Miami next week.

Tantalizing dark horses

6. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6).

The athleticism and heart of Randall Cunningham, coupled with a piranha-like defense, may be enough to overcome the coaching deficiencies of Buddy Ryan. Cunningham is on a mission, and that mission is to save Ryan's job. The Eagles salvaged the home-field advantage for their wild-card game with Washington after a 2-4 start, so who knows.

7. Washington Redskins (10-6).

When the Redskins are bad, they're dreadful. See Mark Rypien, see the loss to Indianapolis, then look at the quality of their 10-win season. The winning percentage of the teams they've beaten this year (.48427) is just decimal points behind the Raiders (.48437). If it's a close game, coach Joe Gibbs will make up the difference.

Shaky and shouldn't be around long

8. Miami Dolphins (12-4).

As usual, defense will sabotage Don Shula's best-laid offensive plans. And quarterback Dan Marino isn't quite up to his 48-touchdown heroics of their last Super Bowl season. The Dolphins find out if they're a contender in their first-round game against Kansas City.

9. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7).

With everything on the line, the Bengals barely outlasted the brutal Cleveland Browns, 21-14. It marked the first time they have won back-to-back games since the second and third weeks of the season. Does that sound like momentum?

10. Houston Oilers (9-7).

There's no shooting the Moon without Warren. Cody Carlson, Moon's caddy, looked great ripping the Steelers to shreds last night. But one game does not a Super Bowl quarterback make. His bigger test will come in next week's wild-card round at Cincinnati.

11. Chicago Bears (11-5).

Remember when the Bears were 9-1? They lost four of their last six. Worse yet, they lost quarterback Jim Harbaugh to a shoulder separation two weeks ago. His replacement, Mike Tomczak, has created a quarterback crisis. Tomczak was 5-for-23 against the Chiefs in a 21-10 loss. Rookie Peter Tom Willis is already warming up for next week's game against either Dallas or New Orleans.

Shaky and shouldn't be here at all

12. Dallas Cowboys (7-9) or New Orleans Saints (7-8).

Regardless of the outcome of tonight's finale, this is going to be the weakest playoff entry. Why? Babe Laufenberg and Cliff Stoudt of Dallas. Steve Walsh and John Fourcade of New Orleans.

That's why.

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