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Anyone can still fumble on way to NFL playoffs

Get out your pocket calculators and tie-breaking formulas. With them, you may be the first on your block to figure out which teams will go to the National Football League playoffs.

Sorting through the dizzying possibilities is never easy, though, especially with four weeks still remaining in the regular season.

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There's actually only one certainty at this point: Philadelphia, with a league-leading 11-1 record, has secured no worse than a wild-card playoff berth.

Everyone else is still hanging on tenterhooks -- everyone, that is, except the league's Les Miserables,m who have already squandered their playoff chances. Leading this group are the winless New Orleans Saints, whose 0-12 record has prompted embarrassed fans to wear paper bags over their heads and call the club the "Aints."

About the only good news emanating from this port city is that the Saints' futility may give them the first choice in next spring's college draft.

Teams still in contention for postseason loot, of course, know the future is now, to quote former Redskin coach, George Allen.

No one but Philadelphia, which enjoys a two-game lead over Dallas, owns any breathing room in the division races.Atlanta Buffalo, and Detroit are the only other teams in sole possession of first, with most of the recognized powers either in a first-place tie or trailing in their divisions.

The fortunes of last year's conference finalists indicate the dangers lurking in the NFL's shoal-riddled waters. Houston is deadlocked with Cleveland in the AFC Central, while Pittsburgh (7-5) has fallen a game behind these division rivals. Los Angeles (8-4) trails Atlanta in the NFC Western, and Tampa Bay (4-7 -1) is fourth in the lightly regarded NFC Central.

As a whole, the season has been marked by an incredible amount of scoring, more, in fact, than ever before. Rule changes that aid the passing game have begun to cause rumblings in some quarters, partly because they seem to devalue touchdowns. Now, instead of engineering time-consuming drives, offenses go for the quick strike. This, some feel, serves to equalize the competition, since a few big plays per game may give a lesser team the victory.

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Few teams seem consistently able to stop the opposition. The ones that do, of course, often can be found near the top of the standings. Philadelphia, to cite the clearest example, has had only 142 points scored against it in a dozen weeks, easily making the Eagle defense the league's stingiest. By comparison, Pittsburgh's once-feared defensive unit has relinquished 255 points and Tampa Bay's , the leader in this department a year ago, 262.

Reports have been circulating that Pittsburgh is more vulnerable to the pass, an assessment perhaps borne out during last Sunday's loss to Buffalo. The game's big plays were a pair of spectacular touchdown catches Jerry Butler made while covered by Mel Blount, a nonpareil cornerback several years ago.

The Steeler's primary concern at this point is to make the playoffs, since that's the obvious first step toward defending their Super Bowl title. Threatening to end their division reign, however, are Cleveland, a team that appears to be gathering momentum, and Houston, an old nemesis.

The Browns have lost only one of their last seven games, that by three points to Pittsburgh. Houston, facing the moment of truth, meets Cleveland this coming Sunday, then Pittsburgh just five days later.

The Oilers may have been guilty of looking ahead when the New York Jets, in a major upset, beat them in overtime last weekend. In recording only their third win, the Jets held Earl Campbell, the NFL's top rusher, to a mere 60 yards.

Atlanta, which is as much of a surprise team as Buffalo, has regularly come from behind, doing so most recently with the help of a controversial play against Chicago. On the brink of scoring a TD that would have fattened their lead, the Bears lost the ball one yard from the goal line on a play Chicago's Walter Payton protested vehemently was a non-fumble. ATlanta took over, eventually erasing a 17-14 deficit to win 28-17.

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