Take Jim Kelly away from the Bills, Phil Simms from the Giants and Jim Harbaugh from the Bears,

Trendand you have:1. Unarmed, perhaps through the playoffs, three of the teams considered most dangerous to the San Francisco 49ers' chances of an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl championship.

2. Thrown the Super Bowl picture wide open by giving new hope to the second tier of challengers, led by the surging Eagles and Oilers.

Contradictory? Yes, but that's fitting in a season full of plot twists in the NFL.

A month ago, the New York Giants were 10-0, the Chicago Bears and the Buffalo Bills 9-1. Since then, the Giants and the Bears are 1-3, the Bills 3-1, and all three are without their starting quarterbacks.

The Bills will go with Frank Reich instead of Kelly, out at least the rest of the regular season with a knee injury; The Giants will be led by Jeff Hostetler instead of Simms, out with a sprained foot, and the Bears are left with Mike Tomczak and Peter Tom Willis instead of Harbaugh, sidelined by a separated shoulder.For the first time ever, four teams from one division may make the playoffs - the Giants, Redskins, Eagles and Cowboys in the NFC East.

That's because for the first time ever, league rules allow four teams from one division to make it.

It wasn't supposed to be this way when the NFL added two more teams to the playoffs for this season.

With two weeks left in the regular season, only four of the 12 berths are still available - just one in the NFC and three in the AFC. Moreover, two AFC teams can clinch at least wild-cards next week - Houston by beating Cincinnnati and Kansas City by winning in San Diego.

Buffalo and Miami, who meet to settle the AFC East next week, have already made it. So have the Raiders. whose 24-7 victory over the Bengals Sunday put them in the playoffs for the first time since 1985 and gave them control of the West over the Chiefs, who lost to Houston thanks to Warren Moon's near-record 527 passing yards.

In fact, there are five AFC teams eliminated - New England, Cleveland, Denver, the New York Jets and San Diego.

In the NFC, the Eagles and Redskins wrapped up wild cards this weekend, while the Cowboys' 41-10 rout of Phoenix put them at 7-7, in the lead for the sixth NFC spot, a remarkable comeback after a 1-15 season. The 49ers, Giants and Bears had already clinched division titles.

Dallas' road to the playoffs still isn't particularly easy. The Cowboys must play a strong Eagle team Sunday in Philadelphia.

Lurking right behind Dallas are four 6-8 teams - Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Minnesota and New Orleans - plus the Rams, who went into Monday's game with the 49ers at 5-8.Three weeks ago, tight end Arthur Cox of the Chargers fumbled twice, once when San Diego was in position for a game-winning field goal, the second time in overtime to set up Norm Johnson's game-winning field goal for Seattle.

On Sunday, another San Diego tight end, Derrick Walker, fumbled as he tried to reach into the end zone for a score. The ball was recovered by Denver's Randy Robbins, sending the Broncos on to a 20-10 win.

If Cox and Walker had held the ball, the Chargers might be 8-6 and in playoff position instead of eliminated.