American Football: Washington ponder the permutations: Matt Tench on the issues to be settled this weekend

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FOR the Philadelphia Eagles and the Houston Oilers defeat may be preferable to victory. The Washington Redskins know that a win could be of no use, but a loss may not end their season. Confused? You will be. It is the last weekend of the NFL's regular season and some of the issues are anything but clear-cut.

Those who consider American football to be a series of random collisions governed by a set of unfathomable rules should try making sense of things off the field. It even bewilders the protagonists. 'I'm not sure what's happening,' Joe Gibbs, the Washington head coach, said. 'I just know someone has to help us.'

The Eagles play the New York Giants on Sunday having already secured an NFC wild-card place into the play-offs, along with New Orleans. Washington, who play host to the Los Angeles Raiders, and Green Bay, who visit Minnesota, are both 9-5, and chasing the one remaining spot. If both lose then Washington go through, and if both win, and Philadelphia do so as well, Washington still progress. But if both win, and Philadelphia lose, then all three will be equal on 9-6 and because of the complex system for judging ties in a conference Philadelphia and Green Bay make it while Washington miss out.

All of which puts the Eagles in the peculiar position of being able to eliminate their despised rivals from the capital by adopting the unusual tactic of self-destruction. Divisional score-settling apart, the Eagles may also consider Green Bay an easier option if they have to meet later in the play-offs.

Houston, who are also assured of play-off activity, know that victory at home to Buffalo may set up a return at the same opponents seven days later in the first week of the play-offs. Buffalo lent credence to the notion that they are, after all, the class of the AFC by winning in New Orleans last Sunday, and Houston hardly need to be told that the cold reality of an outdoor stadium in New Jersey is not the ideal setting for their high voltage passing offense.

Mike Ditka could be in charge of the Chicago Bears for the last time in his team's game at Dallas. The biggest, grizzliest Bear of all has indicated a frustration with the organisation which may see him not fulfilling the final year of his contract. If he does go, it is hard to see this being a happy ending.

Meanwhile, peace is about to break out off the field. The long- running battle between the league and the players' union which centres on the players' right of free agency - the freedom to sign for the highest bidder - is being settled substantially in the players' favour. They will be granted the freedom after five years. The lack of it has been crucial in maintaining the relatively low level of transfer activity in the game, and the new agreement can be expected to spark a wave of big-name, big-money moves.

NFL FIXTURES: Saturday: New Orleans at New York Jets, Los Angeles Raiders at Washington. Sunday: Cleveland at Pittsburgh, Denver at Kansas City, Green Bay at Minnesota, Indianapolis at Cincinnati, Miami at New England, NY Giants at Philadelphia, Atlanta at LA Rams, Chicago at Dallas, San Diego at Seattle, Tampa Bay at Phoenix, Buffalo at Houston. Monday: Detroit at San Francisco.