Anyone who doubts that Pete Rozelle's long-awaited parity has been achieved in the National Football League need only look at the point spreads for this week's games.
Here it is, the next-to-last week of the regular season, when the good teams supposedly have been separated from the bad, when certain teams figure to be motivated (for playoff spots) while others are merely playing out the schedule -- and the biggest number on the board is 7, Miami favored at Detroit.
One game is listed at 6, another at 4 The other 11 games are 3 1/2 or closer. Rozelle must be beaming. Thanks to the 1978 rule changes, the longer season, the new approach to schedule-making and the leveling effect of the draft, the NFL has reached a point where it is difficult to distinguish two NFC divisional champions from two AFC cellar clubs.
Sunday's Cincinnati-Washington and Tampa Bay-San Francisco contests offer excellent examples of Pete's parity. The Bengals are 3-11 with lopsided victories over Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and a near-miss against San Diego. They are in last place in the Afc cEntral, six games behind third-place Cleveland, and yet they are rated only a touchdown inferior to the 9-5 Redskins at Washington.
Tampa Bay is 9-5 and still odds-on to capture the NFC Central, while San Francisco is 1-13, with the league's worst record. Yet the 49ers are only a 3 1/2-point underdog at home against the Buccaneers.
I question whether the Cincinnati-Washington spread is accurate, but I'm not willing to risk too much to find out. The basis for the seemingly short price is that AFC teams have repeatedly shown their superiority over NFC squads. Still, Redskins have the better defense, plus every reason in the world to be printed for a top effort, I'll try an imaginary $250, giving the 6.
Tampa Bay at San Francisco finds the Bucs struggling on offense because of quarterback problems. The 49ers defense might cure some of those headaches but S.F. can score and, playing at home, have a chance to gain one last hurrah. The score will be close. I'll take the 3 1/2 for $250.
Atlanta, likewise, has a strong chance to upset Los Angeles, even though the Rams are favored by 3. The Falcons will never forget how L.A. embarrassed them on national TV two years ago by piling up a huge score. More important, the current Rams are struggling. They were lucky to get past San Francisco and Minnesota the last two weeks. Atlanta, with Steve Bartkowski back, poses a real threat at home. I'll risk $500 on the "dog."
That leaves two opportunities to gather up Tony Awards -- Franklin Fritsch -- at $750 apiece. I'm going with Philadelphia against Dallas and Houston against Pittsburgh, each getting 3 1/2 points. The extra half-point could be critical inasmuch as the underdogs are playing at home and are gifted with two of the best field-goal kickers in the business.
In other action, Las Vegas lists Denver 3 at Seattle, St. Louis 2 over the New York Giants, Chicago 4 at Green Bay, Minnesota 1 1/2 over Buffalo, Baltimore 2 over Kansas City, New England 3 1/2 at the New York Jets, San Diego 3 at New Orleans and Oakland 1 1/2 over Cleveland.