The best record in the Coffeecake Conference of the National Football League at the end of this regular season will belong not to Dallas or to Los Angeles but to Tampa Bay.
Not that the Buccaneers have become a power, compared with the top four or five teams in the American Conference, where the big boys play. Rather, Tampa Bay is a team that happens to be in the easiest division of the considerably weaker (National) conference, and the Bucs have been asked to play a schedule that only Coach John McKay could have devised.
Consider this: Over the remaining 12 weeks, the unbeaten Buccaneers will play at Chicago, at the New York Giants, New Orleans, Green Bay, at Minnesota, at Atlanta, at Detroit, the New York Giants, Minnesota, Chicago, at San Francisco and Kansas City.
There is not one team on that list likely to perform better than .500. Tampa's defense, aligned against this dirty dozen, has a chance to establish, statistically, a record for stinginess comparable to Pittsburgh's. The Steelers, of course, will be forced to defend against much more talented offenses.
All of which goes to show how, each and every year, the schedulemakers have a tremendous impact on the final standings. And, since 1978, the NFL schedule purposely penalizes the strong and rewards the weak teams -- all in the name of better box office.
Dallas is still the standout among National Conference clubs, although the Cowboys would be life and death to fare better than 10-6 in the AFC Central and certainly could not win the AFC East.
This does not mean that Tom Landry, given the luxury of playing in the NFC, won't have a formidable squad by playoff time. But the Cowboys' current image, without Too Tall Jones, is shrinking. Just ask the more publicized Harvey Martin and Randy White how badly they miss Jones.
Tampa Bay is the best bet of any team in the NFL for a divisional championship at this point. Chicago, however, rules as 1 1/2-point favorite over the Buccaneers Sunday in Chicago, even though the Bears are coming off defeats at the hands of Dallas (24-20) and Miami (31-16).
"The Bears know this is the game for them," said Bob Martin, the Head Linesman for the nation's pointspread prognosticators. "If the Bears lose, they're three down, with a much tougher schedule than Tampa Bay has. It would be all over."
Maybe, it will be, anyhow. I'll take the 1 1/2 points and the Bucs for an imaginary $250. The biggest danger is that Tampa Bay will have celebrated last weekend's 21-6 victory over Los Angeles too long. Chicago, while improving, must wait for Vince Evans to develop as a quarterback.
I'll also string along with Houston, giving 5 at home to Cleveland, for a mythical $250 and with Baltimore, for $500 favored by 2 1/2 points at home against Buffalo.
The Colts (0-4) have played admirably the last two weeks in losing at Cleveland and Pittsburgh by a total of seven points. Maybe this week Bert Jones will return to action. If not, Greg Landry is substituting adequately.
Houston will move the ball well on Cleveland. Everybody does. I like the Brown's offense, but the Pruitts and Sipe are going to have to be at their best to outpoint Campbell and Pastorini in the Astrodome, and there could be a slight letdown by the Brown after Moday's success over Dallas.
In other games this week, the Las Vegas line lists Atlanta 3 over Washington, Miami favored by 5 at the New York Jets, Detroit 3 1/2 over Minnesota, New Orleans 6 over the New York Giants, Pittsburg 6 over Philadelphia, Denver 3 at Oakland, Seattle 6 1/2 over Kansas City, Los Angeles 6 over St. Louis, San Diego 13 1/2 over San Francisco, Dallas 9 over Cincinnati and (Monday night) New England 8 at Green Bay. Strine's Record
Last Week, Plus $350; Season Totals, Plus $85
Last week's results: St. Louis (7-17), giving 4 1/2 to Washington, lost $550; New England (27-21), giving 3 1/2 to San Deigo, won $500; Philadelphia (17-13), giving 4 to New York Giants, tied; Miami (31-16), giving 6 1/2 to Chicago, won $500; Tampa Bay (21-6), getting 3 1/2 from Los Angeles, won $500; Denver (37-34), giving 5 to Seattle, lost $550; Buffalo (46-31), giving 2 to New York Jets, won $500; Dallas (7-26) giving 3 to Clevlenad, lost $550.
Season record: 12-11-1.