The National Football League season is at the midway point, but much of the suspense and excitment concerning the 10 playoff spots is over.
Dallas, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles are going to win divisional titles in the NFC. Pittsburgh, New England and San Diego are the class of the AFC. Philadelphia and Washington are odds-on to capture the NFC's wildcard berths, while the schedule makes Miami and Denver the logical choices for the AFC's last two slots.
Only a cluster of major problems could alter the NFC outlook.
The Rams are struggling because of injuries, but neigher New Orleans nor Atlanta has enough balance to overtake the NFC West's perennial champions.
Tampa Bay's two-game lead in the NFC Central will, in the long run, prove insurmountable for Minnesota to overcome.
Dallas is all by itself in terms of the National Conference quality, but two other teams from the Cowboys' Eastern Division enjoy a two-game advantage over all other squads in the race for the wild cards. So long as Ron Jaworski and Joe Theismann stay healthy, the Eagles and the Redskins will be the best of the rest.
The AFC is a little tougher to predict because there are more good teams competing. It is not too farfetched, for example, to suggest that Seattle might have won the NFC West this season, even though it currently is in last place in the AFC West. Either Cleveland or Houston would have won the Central Division had they been in the NFC instead of the AFC. And Miami is stronger than Philadelphia or Washington, its East counterparts.
If there is to be a surprise development over the final eight weeks, it could be Oakland. We'll find out in a hurry, as the Raiders enterain San Diego tonight. This is a backs-to-the-wall or edge-of-the-plank situation for the Raiders, who are 4-4, two games behind the Chargers and one game behind Denver.
I like to support good teams facing such a predicament, particularly when they are playing at home in an underdog role. I'll go with Oakland, getting 2 1/2 points, but the risk is merely an imaginary $250 inasmuch as Ken Stabler has become as undependable as Dan Fouts is dependable.
Minnesota faces much the same situation as Oakland. The Vikings must defeat Tampa Bay Sunday in Bloomington if they are to keep their playoff hopes alive. They are favored by 1 1/2 points. I can't pick them. The Bucaneers enjoy too much of an edge in the offensive and defensive lines. I'll pass.
Instead, the week's other selections will be Denver and Pittsburgh, for $250 each.
The Broncos can handle just about anybody's offense except Pittsburgh's. Denver shut down the Chiefs' running game two weeks ago in Kansas City, 24-10. There is no reason the Broncos can't do it again. The danger here is that Kansas City's Mike Livingston will pass more effectively than Steve Fuller did in the teams' first meeting. The spread is 6 points.
Dallas at Pittsburgh is the Game of the Week or, for that matter, the Game of the Regular Season. These two squads are on their way to a return match in the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys' offense has been exceptional for eight consecutive weeks. Pittsburgh's offense has had only one letdown, in Cincinnati. Both defenses are going to be very vulnerable to what they are confronted with Sunday. It may take 30 points ot win. The edge might be in the secondaries. Pittsburgh's is better. I'll give the 3 1/2.
In the other games this week, Las Vegas lists Washington 5 1/2 over New Orleans, Buffalo at Detroit, Houston 6 1/2 over the New York Jets, St. Louis 3 over Cleveland, New Enlgand 6 at Baltimore, Los Angles 7 over the New York Giants, Cincinnati 2 1/2 over philadelphia, Chicago 2 1/2 at San Francisco, Miami 10 1/2 over Green Bay and (Monday night) Seattle 2 at Atlanta.