A professional handicapper of professional football always is peering a week or two ahead on the schedule for the magical matchups that will enable him to have a conviction instead of merely an opinion.
These opportunities do not come along often; only five or six times a year, perhaps.
For instance, I currently have the Oakland-Los Angeles game of Dec.4 circled, along with Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Dec.10. Then, in the back of the mind, there is the mouth-watering possibility of Oakland playing at Baltimore in the opening round of the AFC playoffs.
Afforded the right set of circumstances, I would strongly support the Raiders against the Rams, the Steelers against the Bengals and the Raiders against the Colts. But so much can happen to dampen the enthusiam for a game which, only a week or two earlier, stood out so boldly on the prospectus.
This week is typical in that respect. I had five games circled as possibilities three weeks ago. This is unusual. Rarely is there long-range interest in more than one or two games for a specific week.
I was looking at Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Denver and Dallas this week. So what happened? Well, Brian Sipe was injured at Pittsburgh, Detroit's Greg Landry was unable to play last Sunday, Miami's offense performed admirably despite losing to Cincinnati, Roger Staubach and the Dallas offensive line are breaking down and Baltimore, Denver's opponent, is coming on strong.
Now, for one reason or another, not one of the five games is a prime selection, and I have cooled off completely on the Cardinals. Miami's speed is going to score 21 or more points at St. Louis secondary is ailing. The Cardinals still may beat the spread, but there is an equally good chance that the Dolphins will provide Washington with a Thanksgiving treat. If I had to pick, I'd take the points in what figures to be an entertaining shootout.
My only holiday action will center on Detroit, if, as expected, Landry is able to play against Chicago. Detroit is a two-point underdog, even though the Lions play a superb kamikaze defense on their home ground.
I predicted last fall that Detroit would shut down O.J.Simpson on Thanksgiving Day. Simpson responded by gaining a then-record 273 yards. Detroit covered the spread against Buffalo in 1976, however, and it should do so again this year. Walter Payton has a right to be pooped after Sunday's 275 yards against Minnesota. Take the Lions for a mythical $250 if Landry starts.
Cleveland is going to give Los Angeles a rugged Sunday afternoon. Dave Mays, Sipe's backup, needs only to keep from making costly mistakes. The Browns must win this game to keep pace with Pittsburgh, while the Rams are comfortably in front of Atlanta and looking ahead to Oakland. I'll go with Cleveland, getting two points, for a mythical $250.
Denver's defense may be wearing down slightly from over exposure. Bert Jones and the Baltimore offense are primed for a top effort. But the Colts' secondary continues to be vulnerable and Denver should be able to run a little on Baltimore.
The Broncos have the defense, they are playing at home, and they are a game ahead of Oakland. That's a great combination of factors, so I will string along with them one more time, giving one point for a mythical $250.
Finally, there is the matter of Dallas at Washington. The hard facts point to Dallas' defense as being too physical for the home team to handle. But the Cowboy's offensive line must worry Tom Landry and Staubach continues to have trouble throwing the ball. Never take George Allen lightly in this situation. If you do he'll lighten your mythical bank roll nine times out of 10.
Even so, I have to go along with the obvious, the Dallas defense, for a mythical $250. Shop around for the 6 1/2 points. Stay away from giving seven points. Stay away from giving seven and should the field come up muddy, stay away from the game completely.
In other games it's Atlanta giving 9 1/2 at Tampa Bay, Houston giving 10 to Kansas City, Minnesota giving 7 at Green Bay, San Franciso giving 4 to New Orleans, Cincinnati giving 11 1/2 to the Giants, Philadephia getting 9 1/2 in New England, and Jets getting 15 (up from 14) from pittsburgh, San Diego giving 7 in Seattle and Oakland giving 15 Monday night to Buffalo.