Playoff system qualifies as confusing, to say least Even league office can't get it right


The same people who designed the way VCRs are programmed must have come up with the NFL's tie-breaking playoff system.

It's virtually impossible to figure out either one.

As coach Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins said yesterday of his team's playoff chances: "It's real easy. Beat Philadelphia. The rest of it is so complicated I can't figure it out anyway. A thousand things can happen."

"I don't understand the playoff process," said coach Art Shell of the Los Angeles Raiders after Monday night's 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Shell wasn't sure, but it turned out the loss eliminated his team.

Gibbs and Shell have plenty of company. The NFL can't figure it out at times, either. It sometimes even issues playoff scenarios that turn out to be incorrect.

Last week, the league announced the Redskins could clinch a playoff berth with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys if the Green Bay Packers lost to the Houston Oilers. That turned out to be incorrect, and the league issued a clarification a couple of days later that the Philadelphia Eagles also had to win, but Green Bay made it a moot point by beating the Oilers.

On Monday, the league wound up giving the Redskins three playoff scenarios because the first two had to be clarified.

The problem is a system that includes division and conference games, common games, net points in division games, net points in all games, strength of schedule and best net touchdowns in all games. Plus a coin flip if all else fails.

It turns out the winner of Sunday's Washington-Philadelphia game will clinch a berth, but the Redskins will probably make the playoffs even if they lose to the Eagles. They can lose both of their final two games to the Eagles and Raiders and still make it if the Minnesota Vikings lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota-Green Bay finale doesn't end in a tie.

It may even turn out that the league won't have to invoke the tie-breaking procedures this year.

With two weeks left, the league would decide the 12 playoff berths by the old-fashioned method: best records. The 12 teams with the best records would make it.

Many teams have slumped this season. Seven of the 14 NFC teams already have been eliminated.

San Francisco is one win away from clinching the NFC West, and Dallas is one victory away from winning the NFC East. New Orleans has clinched a wild-card spot. That leaves three teams -- Washington, Philadelphia and Green Bay -- fighting for the final two wild-card spots.

Green Bay also can win the NFC Central if it wins its last two and Minnesota loses to Pittsburgh this week. Minnesota can't be a wild-card team. It must win the division title by winning one of its final two games or it will miss the playoffs.

The most significant development is that San Francisco is not only a victory away from a division title, it's a victory away from wrapping up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The NFC team with that edge is the front-runner for the Super Bowl. Five NFC teams since 1983 -- the 49ers in 1984 and 1989, the Chicago Bears in 1985, the New York Giants in 1986 and the Washington Redskins last year -- parlayed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs into a title. The 49ers can even win the Super Bowl without leaving the state of California the rest of the season. Their final two regular-season games are at home, and the Super Bowl is at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Then there's the AFC, which hasn't won a Super Bowl since 1983. With the Buffalo Bills struggling in their quest for their third straight Super Bowl appearance, the AFC doesn't even have a front-runner for the Super Bowl. Last week, two losing NFC teams (4-9 Chicago and 3-10 Detroit) beat two AFC contenders (Pittsburgh and Cleveland).

It could be that the San Diego Chargers, who started 0-4 and are 9-1 in their past 10 games, are the best AFC team. But they're one game behind 10-4 Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the battle for home-field advantage, and the Chargers aren't noted for playing well in cold weather.

While Pittsburgh has clinched the AFC Central title and Buffalo needs one victory to win the AFC East, the Bills hold the tiebreaker edge on the Steelers for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs because they beat the Steelers during the regular season.

San Diego, Kansas City and Miami each need one win to clinch a playoff spot, and the Chiefs can win the AFC West over San Diego by winning their last two.

Houston must beat Cleveland and Buffalo in its last two games to clinch a playoff berth.

If Houston falters, three 7-7 teams -- Denver, Indianapolis and Cleveland -- could sneak in by winning their last two games.

There will be several new faces in the playoffs. Five of last year's 12 playoff teams -- the New York Jets, Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears -- have been eliminated.

Playoff picture

The NFL playoff outlook with two weeks left in the season:

NFC Clinched: San Francisco, Dallas, New Orleans.

Still in running: Washington, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Green Bay.

AFC Clinched: Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

Still in running: Kansas City, San Diego, Miami, Houston, Denver, Indianapolis, Cleveland.

Playoffs at a glance

How the NFL playoffs stand, with those teams that have clinched, those that need one or two wins to clinch and those that need to win and have others lose:

NFC Clinched berths .. .. .. .. .. W-L Remaining games

San Francisco 49ers . .. .. .. 12-2 Tampa Bay, Detroit

Dallas Cowboys ... .. .. .. .. 11-3 at Atlanta, Chicago

New Orleans Saints .. .. .. .. 11-3 Buffalo, at Jets

Need one win

Washington Redskins . .. .. .. 9-5 at Philadelphia, Raiders

Philadelphia Eagles . .. .. .. 9-5 Washington, Giants

Minnesota Vikings ... .. .. .. 9-5 at Pittsburgh, Green Bay

Needs help

Green Bay Packers ... .. .. .. 8-6 Rams, at Minnesota

AFC Clinched berths

Buffalo Bills . .. .. .. .. .. 10-4 at New Orleans, at Houston

x-Pittsburgh Steelers .. .. .. 10-4 Minnesota, Cleveland

Need one win

Kansas City Chiefs .. .. .. .. 9-5 at Giants, Denver

San Diego Padres . .. .. .. .. 9-5 at Raiders, at Seattle

Miami Dolphins ... .. .. .. .. 9-5 Jets, at New England

Needs two wins

Houston Oilers ... .. .. .. .. 8-6 at Cleveland, Buffalo

Need help

Denver Broncos ... .. .. .. .. 7-7 Seattle, at Kansas City

Indianapolis Colts .. .. .. .. 7-7 Phoenix, at Cincinnati

Cleveland .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 7-7 Houston, at Pittsburgh

x-Clinched division title

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