As the end nears, the NFL has turned into the NFL—the National Arithmetic League—and the American public is holding its breath as Commissioner Pete Einstein hunkers over his calculators, trying to figure out whether Tampa Bay's first victory in history last Sunday will qualify the Buccaneers for a wildcard spot when the playoffs begin on Christmas Eve. As the regular season adds, subtracts and multiplies itself to a halt, the only five outfits definitely headed for the Super Bowl eliminations without any arguments are the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, Oakland Raiders and that traditional rival of the fans, the hard-hitting IBM Bay Computers.
Well, it figures. A season that can produce a Denver with a 12-1 record can produce almost anything, so the next-to-last weekend of the regular grind served up a veritable buffet of insanity. Forget Tampa Bay dislodging Hank Stram's toupee in New Orleans, 33-14. That didn't affect anything except certain people's job security. Of far more interest were Cincinnati's Arctic Circle upset of Pittsburgh, Baltimore's buffoon-style loss to Detroit, the final chapter in the collapse of St. Louis at the feet of Washington and New England's heroic dismantling of Miami's Bob Griese, which, as it turns out, will probably mean nothing to the Patriots.
Math became important in the close divisional races. In the AFC Central, for instance, the Bengals needed to beat the Steelers—and beat them by more than six points. The rule that applied here involved the point differential in their head-to-head meetings. What it provided was a situation in which Pittsburgh could win the formula-off by intentionally playing for a loss and kicking a field goal to narrow Cincinnati's margin of victory instead of going for a touchdown that would win the game. It never came to that, fortunately, not after Franco Harris lived up to his role as the NFL's second-best designated fumbler (no one can compare with St. Louis' Terry Metcalf in this regard), and Cincinnati out-iceskated the Steelers 17-10. That margin of victory gave the Bengals a one-point edge over the Steelers, who won the previous game between the two by six points, and will put Cincinnati in the playoffs if it defeats Houston in its last game.
The arithmetic is even more fascinating in the AFC East. After the Patriots stung the Dolphins 14-10, and the once-impressive Colts had found an intriguing way to lose to the Lions 13-10, their third defeat in 15 days after losing only once in 10 weeks, the situation was this: if Baltimore can somehow regroup and rediscover Bert Jones' arm and win its final game over New England, it will stagger into the playoffs. But if the Patriots win that game, while Miami does the expected by tromping on Buffalo, the Dolphins will be in the playoffs. Miami would then have a better record than New England within the division, although both clubs would finish 10-4 overall.
And how would Baltimore edge Miami for a playoff berth if they were to conclude the proceedings with identical 10—4s? Oh, that's easy. The Colts outscored the Dolphins in their two games, right? Wrong. Well, they did, but it doesn't matter. O.K., Baltimore would have a better record in the division, right? Wrong. Their records would be the same. So what then? It's the record in the conference, silly. Miami would have lost four games to AFC teams, and Baltimore would have lost only three. So the nitwit Baltimore punt that Detroit's Leonard Thompson blocked Sunday for the winning touchdown in the last nine seconds really will have no bearing whatsoever.
On the other hand, if the Colts lose to the Patriots and miss the playoffs, Baltimore Coach Ted Marchibroda will have a long winter to wonder why he did not give up a safety to the Lions. What the Colts really did in losing, aside from proving that Jones is in a slump, was keep Miami alive. The Dolphins were absolute goners after the Patriots sacked Griese six times and won that thriller.
But perhaps all of this will be clearer if it's discussed by divisions. So...NFC EAST—Early in the season the Super Bowl, according to most Texans, was all set. It would be Dallas vs. Oakland and the final score would be 35-33, one way or another. This was when the Cowboys were romping to an 8-0 record and their front four were leading the league in ambulance calls. Four of the first seven quarterbacks the Cowboys faced did not finish the game, and their front four became known as "Too Tall, Too Mean, Too Strong and Too Jethro." That was for Too Tall Jones, Harvey Martin, Randy White and Jethro Pugh.
Then something happened. When the record read 8½-0—they were leading St. Louis 14-3 at halftime—the Cowboys suddenly got bored with the division, and Roger Staubach's aches and pains caught up with him. Dallas lost to the Cardinals, then to a highly emotional Pittsburgh team. By then, however, Tony Dorsett was a starter. The Cowboys got it back together, as Dorsett aimed at a 1,000-yard rookie rushing season, and they clinched their ninth division title in the past 12 years and also the home-field advantage for "the second season."
For all of this, it is still hard to tell how good Dallas is. The Cowboys have a grand mixture of youth and experience, and plenty of talent, but one cannot forget that they play in a division in which one contender, Washington, lost twice to the New York Giants, and another, St. Louis, had days when its players looked either like the unhappiest group in captivity or the holders of numbered Swiss bank accounts. There is still a chance that whiskey-faced old Billy Kilmer, who resurfaced to quarterback Washington past St. Louis 26-20 last Saturday, could lug the Redskins into the playoffs as the NFC wild-card team with a 9-5 record, but only if several bizarre things happen this weekend. Like Washington upsetting the Rams. Or Minnesota and Chicago suffering combined heart failure.
But overall, the summing up of the NFC East is that Dallas did what was expected—and St. Louis did not. Indeed, if there was a National Conference team that seemed to have the capability of the Cowboys and Rams, it was the Jim Hart-Terry Metcalf-Mel Gray-Conrad Dobler Cardinals. One of the season's mysteries is what happened to them.
NFC WEST—Welcome to the Valium Division. The only suspense was how long it would take Pat Haden to become the Los Angeles quarterback. It took four weeks. It was only after Haden replaced Joe Namath and began to pump some excitement into things that the Rams took off. The Rams usually win this division by mid-October, but it took a little longer this time, because Atlanta played like defensive fools for about eight weeks. Otherwise, it was a case of the Rams playing the same old schedule—New Orleans 10 times and Tampa four, or so it seemed—and muddling through. L.A. is physical, though, and if Chuck Knox ever puts more than six plays in the Rams' repertoire, they can make the Super Bowl. Haden might take them there, anyway. He has that charmed quality.
NFC CENTRAL—The only thing interesting about this division has been Walter Payton and his quest to leap over more airport furniture than O.J. Simpson. But, unbelievably, it looks very much as if two of its teams will make the playoffs—Minnesota without Fran Tarkenton and Chicago with a 47-0 loss to Houston on its record. If the Vikings and Bears finish up with 9-5 records, Minnesota will be the division winner and the Bears will edge out the Redskins as the wild card, even if Washington performs that miracle over the Rams. Minnesota would win the division because it outscored the Bears 29-26 as they split their head-to-head battles. And Chicago would nip the Redskins by virtue of having lost fewer games within their division. Thus, Washington's two losses to the Giants would be lethal.
As for the NFC playoff matchups, Dallas seems destined to host the wild card team—let's say Chicago for fun—and Los Angeles most likely will entertain the home folk with Minnesota.
AFC EAST—It will be a cruel thing for sure if the Dolphins get left out after the coaching job Don Shula has done. Bob Griese has had a splendid year in his eyeglasses, and if a pass rusher named A.J. Duhe is not the Defensive Rookie of the Year, there is no such award. Unlike the Patriots and Colts, the Dolphins have never quit. On occasion, the Patriots have been devastating, but they have never overcome their early problems, which all started with an agent named Howard Slusher and two of his clients, offensive linemen John Hannah and Leon Gray, who walked off their jobs for a few weeks. Without them, the Patriots started off 1 and 2. In their last few games New England has sacked everyone but Commissioner Pete Rozelle, employing the kind of rugged defense that last Sunday leveled Miami in what New England felt was a "must" game. The Patriots had no idea that under certain circumstances closing victories over the Dolphins and Colts would do them no good.
Crazily enough, one is left with the notion that if Baltimore slips into the playoffs after so shabby a second half of the season—three straight losses to Denver, Miami and Detroit down the stretch—the two best teams in the division will be watching the playoffs on TV.
AFC CENTRAL—For a time it appeared that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Houston and Cleveland would all wind up with 7-7 records, and it would take all of the graduate students at MIT to determine the winner. There were days when the Steelers reminded everybody of themselves, but the Bengals never did. If, in fact, the Bengals beat the Oilers to make the playoffs, after so deplorable a season, they will mainly have the Steelers to thank.
AFC WEST—This will be remembered as the year Denver created more excitement in Colorado than the average street corner in Aspen. Denver? Craig Morton? Red Miller? No thinking person is yet willing to accept it. Well, a fairly ornery defense was already there, and so were some speed and big play machinery. All that was needed was confidence, a new attitude. To Miller, the new coach, must go the bulk of the credit, while saving a bit for Morton. All the Broncos have done is whip up on more teams with winning records—seven—than any other club. Sometimes Morton did it with a pass, and sometimes the Broncos' Orange Crush defense did it, a defense that produced a corner linebacker named Tom Jackson, who has slowly earned an underground NFL reputation as being the best there is.
Finally, what were the odds at the beginning of the season on Oakland's needing a wild card to get into the playoffs? The Raiders, like everyone else, probably didn't take Denver seriously until it was too late. One thing about Oakland, though. Last Sunday, when the Raiders had to win to clinch the wild card, Ken Stabler became Ken Stabler again, and they walloped Minnesota 35-13.
Oakland has had just enough moments—beating Pittsburgh and Denver, for example—to look like a team fully capable of defending its Super Bowl championship. The Raiders will have to play all their postseason games on the road, but exactly where is in the hands of an enormous number of mathematicians.
All anybody really knows about the AFC playoffs is that Oakland will be traveling and Denver will be staying home as usual. Only this time the Broncos will be playing a football game.