Lions' finish makes Skins' beginning distant memory

The hottest team in the NFL playoffs?

It's not the Washington Redskins or Buffalo Bills, two teams that dispensed with the formality of a 16-game schedule by losing yesterday.


It's not the Houston Oilers or New Orleans Saints, two teams that couldn't stand prosperity this season.

But if you picked the Detroit Lions, congratulations and take a front-row seat at the Wayne Fontes School of Optimism. When the Lions were routed by the Redskins, 45-0, in the season opener last September, you wouldn't have given a plugged nickel for their playoff chances.


Yet, when Detroit beat the Bills, 17-14, in overtime at Buffalo yesterday, Fontes was talking that Super Bowl talk, saying the Lions had as good a chance as anyone in the NFC.

OK, so maybe he doesn't remember what happened at RFK Stadium in September. Or maybe that's what a six-game winning streak -- Detroit's longest since 1962 -- does to you.

But the Lions have a franchise-high 12 victories this year, and after a season of chasing the Chicago Bears, they have a leg up on their NFC Central Division foes. If the Bears lose in San Francisco tonight when the playoff pairings are completed, the division title belongs to the Lions, along with a first-round bye and a second-round home game.

A Chicago victory over the 49ers gives the Bears their seventh division title in eight years, and means the Lions would play host to Dallas in next week's wild-card round.

For Detroit, the road to Minneapolis leads back through RFK. The Redskins lost in Philadelphia yesterday, 24-22, with Jeff Rutledge playing quarterback most of the second half. So much for Joe Gibbs' notion of playing to win.

These were the games that had playoff implications yesterday and the outcomes:

* Detroit 17, Buffalo 14: Buffalo's 17-game home winning streak ended, but it didn't bother coach Marv Levy enough to use his front-liners. Quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver James Lofton all sat out. Only Lofton is suspect for the Bills' first playoff appearance on Jan. 4 or 5. The Bills (13-3) still have home-field advantage in the AFC.

The Bills didn't sound worried after the loss. "We were not at full-strength physically or mentally," tackle Will Wolford said. "You don't like to lose, but this is a game we'll definitely be able to shrug off pretty easily. I've just about shrugged it off right now."


* Kansas City 27, L.A. Raiders 21: The Chiefs (10-6) earned home-field advantage in next week's wild-card rematch with the Raiders (9-7), who have lost three in a row. The host Raiders started rookie quarterback Todd Marinovich against the Chiefs because veteran Jay Schroeder has two sprained ankles. The Chiefs beat the Raiders at home earlier in the year, 24-21.

* Denver 17, San Diego 14: When Houston stumbled to a 24-20 loss to the New York Giants on Saturday, it opened the door for the Broncos (12-4) to get the first-round bye. Denver, winning its fourth AFC West title in six years, seized the opportunity. The Broncos have won their past four games and will play host to a second-round game.

* New York Jets 23, Miami 20: Raul Allegre, a nine-year veteran place-kicker who started his NFL career with the Baltimore Colts 1983, eliminated the Dolphins with two pressure field goals, one in regulation and the other in overtime. The Jets (8-8) swept Miami this season and travel to Houston for next week's wild-card round. Nobody expects them to hang around long, though.

"I think they're going to lose their first game," said Miami receiver Jim Jensen. "They're not that good."

* New Orleans 27, Phoenix 3: After losing four straight games and falling out of the NFC West lead, the Saints regrouped to beat the Raiders, 27-0, and the hapless Cardinals. The reward was the first division title in the club's 25-year history. They needed an assist from the Dallas Cowboys, who knocked off the Atlanta Falcons, 31-27. The Saints have the league's second-best defense statistically, and they have Bobby Hebert back at quarterback. Hebert directed the Saints in their past two victories after missing six games with a shoulder injury.

The Saints (11-5) play host to the Falcons in an NFC wild-card game next week.


* Dallas 31, Atlanta 27: The Cowboys (11-5) are the second-hottest playoff team, with a five-game winning streak. But they'll have to win either in Chicago or Detroit next week, and they've already lost to the Lions in the Silverdome, 34-10. They had five turnovers in that game.

The Cowboys have shown they can win on the road, though, scoring big victories in Washington and Philadelphia during their winning streak.