Motivation, always a prime factor in attempting to select a winner against the point spread, becomes even more important as the NFL moves into the final weeks of the regular season.
Seattle plays at Kansas City Sunday and who cares? Neither the Seahawks nor the Chiefs do, except in terms of developing future talent. Or at least that's what both teams should be thinking about. Their 1977 seasons ended months ago.
Tampa Bay, of course, would dearly love to beat someone, but the Buccaneers have turned themselves into something special by their inability to win - or score. So New Orleans has a reason for playing well Sunday: the Saints don't want to be embarrassed by becoming the first team to lose to Tampa Bay.
The Jets, who play Buffalo Sunday, have played consistently well for Lou Michaels this year. They rarely folded, no matter how badly outclassed. Few of the moderate to poor teams can make that statement.
Dallas and Denver should be ignored this week. They have little at stake. Denver, in particular, has earned the home field for its AFC playoff games, no matter what it does against San Diego Sunday. Nor does Dallas figure to be turned on for its Monday night date in San Francisco, although the Cowboys could still lose the NFC home-field edge to Los Angeles, should they meet for the conference title.
My attention this week centers on Oakland and New England Minnesota doesn't really NEED a victory over the Raiders Sunday in order to win the NFC Central. The important game for the Vikings is Saturday night, Dec. 17, at Detroit. That contest will determine Minnesota's playoff status.
Oakland, by comparison, cannot afford to lose Sunday. The Raiders are in a close race with Baltimore and Miami for the AFC's wild-card spot. If they lost to Minnesota, the defending Super Bowl champions might very well find themselves out in the cold when it comes to late-December action.
I continue to believe the Raiders are the best in the NFL, despite injuries to such important people as Atkinson, Vella, Villapiano, Sistrunk, Siani, Colzie, etc. Oakland should be able to manhandle Minnesota, not being inclined to take any chances on a narrow victory. I'll give the 11 points for a mythical $250.
New England, getting 5 1/2 points from Miami at Foxboro, Mass., also is a pick, for a mythical $250. The Dolphins continue to be one of the best-managed acts on the circuit. Never risk the real money against Don Shula. But I doubt that the Patriot's Chuck Fairbanks will be as obliging as Baltimore coach Ted Marchibroda was Monday. Marchibroda was afraid to risk winning.
I had intended going with Pittsburgh against Cincinnati, regardless of the spread. It is an article of faith with "Playing Football" that the Steelers always run on the Bengals; the Bengals never run on the Steelers. Unforunately, Pittsburgh's defense was been hurting in recent weeks.
In other games I'll string along with Wasington getting 4 over St. Louis, Los Angeles giving 10 1/2 over Atlanta, the Jets giving 7 1/2 over Buffalo, Baltimore giving 16 over Detroit. Chicago giving 10 1/2 over Green Bay, Houston giving 3 over Cleveland, Philadelphia giving 6 over the Giants. Kansas City giving 4 1/2 over Seattle, Denver giving 6 1/2 (up from 61 over San Diego. New Orleans giving 12 over Tampa Bay and Dallas giving 7 over San Francisco.