Well, at last it is all very clear for devoted followers of the National Football League's games of chance. The playoffs begin with American East meeting American West in the West, and American Central meeting American Wild Card in the Central. National West plays National Wild Card in West, Calif., and National East plays National Central at Central, Minn. As. for the championship games on Dec. 29, the American will be played either in West, Calif., Central, Pa. or East, Fla. while the National will take place either in East, Mo. or Central, Minn. Some say, of course, that these games will actually be played at NBC and CBS, with ABC, the Wild Card network, standing by in case Rhoda is injured in an automobile accident. Anyhow, there they are, gang, your basic Super Bowl contenders, who look enough like last year's to make a fellow conceal a yawn.
Halfway through the long, 14-game regular season it was all exciting and different. Remember the New England Patriots? They were 6-1 and had beaten Miami, Los Angeles and Minnesota, three of the teams that have since gained the playoffs once again. Remember the St. Louis Cardinals? They were 7-0 and had beaten Washington twice and Dallas once. But, alas, as the season droned on, the Patriots wound up in a medical clinic, and the Cardinals got back in form, barely staggering into the playoffs on Terry Metcalf's traffic violations and Jim Hart's rejuvenated arm. St. Louis on its fast start, and Buffalo, the Wild Card American East largely on two narrow victories over New England, are the two new teams in the playoffs, replacing Dallas and Cincinnati. Alone, they carry the hopes of the downtrodden against the Establishment teams in the holiday drive for spots in Super Bore 9. Sorry, Pete. Make that Super Bowl IX.
It would be lovely to think that the chances of the surprising Cardinals and the semisurprising Bills are excellent in these playoffs, but they are not. Right away, St. Louis must go to Minnesota and the natural ice of Metropolitan Stadium and face a team it lost to at home in a Monday night game that most home teams win. St. Louis can beat anybody if Hart can get the ball to Metcalf or Mel Gray. But the Vikings are tough and reliable and playoff oriented. While St. Louis' Don Coryell probably deserves to be Coach of the Year for proving that a college guy can do the job quickly, the Vikings are rested and ready from napping through an easy division. In a game of word association Minnesota usually suggests sleep, but not when Fran Tarkenton is throwing to John Gilliam.
In the other game in the National Conference, Los Angeles vs. Washington, there are great mysteries. The Redskins are partly old, partly crippled and have no running backs. The Rams have the talented but unpredictable Jimmy Harris at quarterback and questionable outside speed. The two teams played a rather meaningless game against each other recently and the Redskins won, but even Bill Kilmer said, "The Ram defense wasn't there."
Carroll Rosenbloom, the Ram owner, says, "This team is good enough to win the Super Bowl. It has togetherness."
And George Allen, Washington's coach, says of the Redskins, "I've never been prouder of any team," a typically startling quote from Allen, having to do with the fact that Washington once again has overcome age and injury.
For whatever it means, three of the four National playoff teams—L.A., Minnesota and Washington—played most of their games on God's grass, two of them have Super Bowl coaches in Bud Grant and George Allen, and the same two have experienced quarterbacks in Fran Tarkenton and the combination of Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen, Sonny being the guy who got the Redskins untracked when he came in and whipped Miami early in the season.
For all of this, one has to think that St. Louis' chances of plodding through two playoff games to New Orleans are better than those of the other newcomer, Buffalo. There is one big reason: the American Conference, if you judge it by owners, coaches, quarterbacks and overall playing talent, is still the stronger of the two. And Buffalo, as thrilling a team as it is with O. J. Simpson, Joe Ferguson and such receivers as Ahmad Rashad and J. D. Hill, must go up against the most physical of all teams, Pittsburgh. Then, if the Bills were to win, they would have to meet the Oakland-Miami winner.
True, Buffalo beat Oakland in what was one of the first and perhaps best games of the whole season, and lost twice to Miami in games it could easily have won, but experience counts tremendously in the playoffs. Buffalo looks good enough to beat Pittsburgh if things go well for Ferguson, the Steelers being the only team to reach the playoffs without a quarterback, but the Bills do not look steady enough to do that and then handle either Oakland or Miami.
All of which means that the real Super Bowl will be played in the mud of Oakland this Saturday when the Raiders greet the Dolphins. Oakland might well have had a perfect season had it not been for the last-second loss to the Bills and an emotional letdown against Denver, and it ought to be noted that Miami, at times overconfident, at times injured and at times bored, nevertheless lost its three games to fairly competent throwers, Sonny Jurgensen, Jim Plunkett and Joe Namath.
In short, Oakland and Miami bring to the playoffs the best in speed (Paul Warfield, Mercury Morris, Cliff Branch), the best in quarterbacking (Bob Griese and Ken Stabler) and the best in genius (Don Shula, Al Davis). These are consistently winning teams, well-rounded and pretty exciting, if you don't mind watching an occasional Larry Csonka or Marv Hubbard.
For connoisseurs of the playoff teams, here is some bric-a-brac:
Washington played the toughest regular-season schedule in the National Conference, Buffalo in the American.
Minnesota played the easiest schedule in the National, eight of its 10 victories coming against teams at or under .500, and Pittsburgh played the easiest in the American.
Only Oakland avoided losing games to teams at or under .500.
St. Louis and L.A. both lost games to New Orleans.
Minnesota and L.A. both lost games to Green Bay.
Pittsburgh and Buffalo both lost games to Houston.
Miami and Buffalo both lost games to the Jets.
Two black quarterbacks made the playoffs, Harris and Joe Gilliam.
One left-handed quarterback made the playoffs, Stabler.
One college coach made the playoffs, Coryell.
Three media-hating coaches made the playoffs, Shula, Allen, Grant.
Two teams each came out of the toughest divisions, Miami and Buffalo in the American East, and Washington and St. Louis in the National East.
The Rams came out of the easiest division of all, the National West.
St. Louis lost the most games on artificial turf, four.
Minnesota lost the most games on dirt, four.
The best quotes came from Jurgensen and Fred Dryer, the Rams' defensive end. They are unprintable.
The regular season for also-rans was highlighted by the following:
New England and Cincinnati won the Injury Derby.
Atlanta was the biggest disappointment, and as Norm Van Brocklin went out the way he came in, telling everyone to get a haircut, and as Owner Rankin Smith went into hiding in dark glasses and a false mustache, Falcon Dave Hampton said, "It's the closest parallel to Watergate I can think of."
Bud Adams of Houston discovered that Sid Gillman had 11 assistants and looked at film a lot.
Charger Owner Gene Kline got married in August and was seldom seen thereafter.
There were only two sudden-death games and one of those ended in a tie.
Denver's Otis Armstrong emerged-as a real challenger to O.J.
The National Conference produced only one 1,000-yard runner, the Rams' Lawrence McCutcheon.
Everybody threw to the running backs.
Cleveland and Kansas City played the toughest schedules and showed it: 4-10 and 5-9.
Baltimore's Bob Irsay fired a coach and didn't hire a new one.
Philadelphia's receivers replaced the touchdown spike with "Roll Six," a maneuver in which they sank to their knees and tossed the ball like dice.
The Giants lost four games in the final minute but they already had lost the city.
Chicago's Abe Gibron called time-out to tell his Bears to run out the clock.
New England's Mack Herron, who is too small for pro football according to the Dallas computer, ran, caught and returned the football for 2,444 yards to break Gale Sayers' record.
A Raider wide receiver, Steve Sweeney, quit the game when he discovered his religion did not condone violence.
Quarterbacks named Clint Longley, Brian Sipe, Larry Cipa, Mike Boryla and Tom Owen won football games.
Nobody went out for a beer on field goals and extra points.
And as the sun slowly settles Saturday on the real Super Bowl, Oakland against Miami, America will look wistfully to St. Louis and Buffalo in the hope that something new and different pops up in New Orleans on Jan. 12.