The name of the column is "Playing Football." The name of the game is covering the spread, risking $11 to win $10 (mythically, of course). The objectives is simple: to keep the uninterrupted run of success going through 1980-81 with a seventh straight profitable season.
For openers, the way to begin is the way the sixth season ended. With Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are even better than most of the nation's bettors realize. In their last six must-win contests, Pittsburgh has beaten, or at least tied, the point spread. The streak started with the 1978 playoffs and continued through Super Bowls 13 and 14.
To recap. The Steelers were favored by 7 over Denver on Dec. 30, 1978, and romped, 33-10. Favored by 7 over Houston one week later, Pittsburgh scored by 34-5. A 3 1/2 point choice in the Super Bowl against Dallas (the line did not go out to 7 points until late), the final reading was 35-31, a margin which did not indicate the Steelers' superiority.
Late last fall Pittsburgh, favored by 9 1/2, blew out Miami, 34-14, downed Houston, 27-13, as a 10-point pick, then got past Los Angeles, 31-19, in the Super Bowl when favored by 11.
This is an amazing record in that "popular" teams, such as Pittsburgh has become, often create their own downfall in the betting market. The line on them tends to become a little too high, by public demand. But these Steelers keep on beating the opposition and the point spread in the big games.
This recent history would not have a bearing on the Steelers' 1980 opener if the game was against a lesser rival than Houston. The oilers probably are the second best team in the National Football League, making this a very important game inasmuch as the two squads are in the same division. Pittsburgh, playing at home, is favored by 7.
Houston, having obtained Kenny Stabler in a trade for Dan Pastorini, will be an improved club. Stabler will make Earl Campbell more dangerous than ever. But Pittsburgh has an edge on both lines of scrimmage, offensively and defensively. Give the 7, for a mythical $250. Smart shopping might find 6 1/2. Another good bet is that these two teams will be playing for the American Conference title at the end of the season.
Monday night's TV viewers also may be treated to a preview of the National Conference championship game when Dallas visits Washington. The Redskins are favored by 2 1/2.
The Cowboys are helped tremendously by the return of Too Tall Jones, who will make Randy White and Harvey Martin more effecitve on the pass rush. But I doubt that quarterback Danny White is ready for this assignment. His last two preseason efforts were poor. They left the impression that the Dallas shotgun will be too scattershot without Roger Staubach.
Washington's offensive line is better than generally acknowledged. It should be able to keep Dallas' superb defensive front off Joe Theismann's back long enough for the Redskin passer to pick on the questionable Cowboy secondary. Emotionally, this is the Game of the Year for Washington. Give the 2 1/2 for a mythical $500 and join the scalping party.
The interplay of offensive and defensive fronts always has been the key to my approach. What happens on the line dictates everything that happens in a game.
Two NFL rules were changed before the 1978 season in a successful attempt to diminish defensive dominance and put more points on the board, but the best defenses still find their way to the playoffs. The only difference is that some of my handicapping emphasis has shifted from the 4-3 or 3-4 personnel to the secondaries, now that every offense has more time to execute its passing attack.
Restraint is the byword for any better during the early weeks of a season. Too much is unknown. Preseason form often is misleading. Rarely does a mythical $1,000 spot come along before the fourth or fifth week. The maximum risk is $3,000; the minimum, $250. It has added up, over six years, to a net mythical point profit of $29,029 on 56 perecent winning picks.
I like Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Pittsburgh and Denver in their division. Las Vegas quotes Pittsburgh the 12-to-5 favorite in the Super Bowl futures, with Los Angeles 13 to 5. The Rams and Detroit have exceptionally easy schedules.
In other games Sunday, Las Vegas lists Minnesota 4 over Atlanta; the improved New York Jets 6 over Baltimore; Chicago 4 1/2 at Green Bay; New England 5 1/2 over Cleveland; Philadelphia 3 over Denver in a particularly tough matchup; Los Angeles 7 over Detroit (down from 7 1/2); Miami 3 at Buffalo; St. Louis 7 1/2 over the New York Giants; Kansas City 3 1/2 over Oakland; San Diego 2 at Seattle; New Orleans 5 over suddenly respectable San Francisco, and Cincinnati 1 over Tampa Bay.