Minnesota, for all its Super Bowl frustration, is still a better team than Chicago. But the Bears have an excellent chance of overtaking the Vikings in the Central Division of the National Football Conference this season because of the difference in the schedules the teams are asked to play.
The Vikes meet Dallas, St. Louis, Cincinnati and San Francisco at home and Los Angeles and Oakland on foreign fields while the Bears' toughest non-division foes are Los Angeles at home and St. Louis and Houston away.
Schedules, obviously, can be extremely important in attempting to predict which team will wind up in the NFL playoffs.
Another example: Baltimore and New England are rated nearly even in the Eastern Division of the American Conference, yet the Patriots must be made a strong favorite. New England has perhaps the easiest state in the league while Baltimore has drawn Pittsburgh and Washington on consecutive weekends in October and November.
Washington, although facing only a moderate schedules, could lose its wild-card spot in the playoffs to Chicago.
Dallas, despite having a tougher schedule than either the Redskins or St. Louis in the NFC East, probably has enough talent to finish ahead of both rivals. The Cowboys were the best team in the conference last year until Roger Staubach injured a finger and his passing became erratic.
The Redskins will go as far as old Billy Kilmer and young Mike Thomas can carry them. If Kilmer is one year too old, or Thomas is subjected to one injury too many, Washington's season will end in a hurry.
Still, the worst thing to have happened to the Redskins since the end of last season might have been the trade of Mike Phipps from Cleveland to Chicago, Phipps is not glamorous like Joe Namath or Tony Dorsett, but he could mean the difference for the Bears. Bob Avellini is not ready to lead Chicago toward the big money. Phipps is a better quaterback than Brian Sipe, the one he left behind with the Browns.
Many of the articles concerning Namath and Dorsett appear to be taking too much for granted. Broadway Joe's head may help the Rams in several important games, but he does not have the legs to stand up to a full schedule, and his arm is suspect. Dorsett must show he can take the physical punishment that awaits any NFL running back, especially since the Cowboys' offensive line seems better suited for the pass than for the rush.
One important diference in the 1977 schedule, when compared to those of recent seasons, is that several of the outstanding teams are confronted with more difficult assignments. Oakland, Minnesota and Los Angeles have had it comparatively easy the last three years, thanks in part to their back in scheduling. That is not the case this time around.
The Raiders will find slightly tougher competition within the AFC West, from Denver and San Diego. It is what is outside the division that mades the Raiders' road back to the Super Bowl more difficult. They must play at Pittsburgh and at Los Angeles and host Minnesota.
Los Angeles is in the weakest of the six divisions, the NFC West, but Minnesota, Oakland and Washington will help keep the Rams occupied. Still, L.A. is the best bet for a divisional championship, followed closely by Oakland. I also intend to pick New England, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Minnesota for divisional titles.
Cincinnati has a splendid opportunity to finally take first place away from Pittsburgh in the AFC Central.
The Bengals play a much softer schedule. While the Steelers face San Francisco, Oakland and Dallas at home and Baltimore and Denver away. Cincinnati's toughest games outside the division are Denver and Miami at home and in Minnesota. Until Cincinnati convinces me it can stop the Pittsburgh ground game, however, I'll string along with the Steelers.
Cleveland, which enjoyed a surprising 9.5 record last year primarily because of a week schedule, has a difficult one in '77 and will suffer accordingly. So will San Diego and Denver. The luckless Broncos drew Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Baltimore and Buffalo outside their division, San Diego has Cincinnati, New England, Pittsburgh and Miami.
Such twists in the schedule making often spell the difference between an NFL coach keeping his job or being fired. Good teams can be made to look much better or much worse than they are by their overall competition.
New England this year promises to be an excellent case in point. The Patriots probably could play Pittsburgh's schedule and win a divisional championship. But they are in the AFC East, where Miami is crippled, the Buffalo Bills are defenseless and the New York Jets are hopeless. Only Baltimore is formidable and the Colts will be much less dangerous if John Dutton doesn't end his holdout.
The Patriots are in a fairly easy division. Their outside rivals are, in order, Kansas City, at Cleveland, Seattle, at San Diego, Philadelphia and at Atlanta. That is the sort of schedule guaranteed to make any good team look great.
New England, accordinly has a golden chance to post the best won-lost record in the NFL this season, thereby gaining the home-field, advantage for the playoffs. As such, the Patriots are a good gamble in any future book on the Super Bowl.