The importance of the home field for the NFL playoffs was never greater than it promises to be this year. Which is why such seemingly insignificant games as San Francisco at New Orleans and Cincinnati at Atlanta on Sunday might well decide who wins Super Bowl XVI.
Should the 49ers and the Bengals win, and earn the home field advantage throughout the playoffs, there is a strong possibility the Super Bowl would offer a replay of their Dec. 3 contest. But that home field edge is not yet assured for either team.
Traditionally, handicappers have valued the home field as a three-point factor. That translates to a six-point swing, however, in terms of any particular matchup. And, given the increased parity throughout the league this season, even within the top echelon, six points figure to make a tremendous difference.
In the case of playoff contenders Detroit and Denver, the home field is worth more than three points. It may be as much as five or six. Don't ask me why. It just is. If you don't believe it, try betting against it.
I imagine the NFL office is shuddering at the thought of playoff games being telecast nationally from San Francisco or Buffalo during the next several weeks. Players have a difficult time standing up on the 49ers' home sod. That field is a joke, it is in such terrible shape. Buffalo, meanwhile, always threatens to feature a blizzard as its chief attraction at this time of year.
Perhaps, as a penalty for the pathetic condition of its field this year, San Francisco should be forced to play all its playoff games on the road. I'm only kidding, of course. But such an action would almost be justified. The 49ers cannot offer championship conditions for these championship events.
This weekend I'm going with Miami to capture the AFC East and Detroit to take the NFC Central, predicting that both teams will cover the point spread in the process. The Dolphins are favored by 2 1/2 at home Saturday to Buffalo while the Lions are a six-point choice Sunday to Tampa Bay. Each pick attracts an imaginary $750.
The home field is the overwhelming consideration with the Lions. Only once have they failed to cover in '81 under Pontiac's Dome, where they are undefeated. I am impressed by the excellent play of the Lions' offensive line, which gives them a beautifully balanced attack with Billy Sims running and Eric Hipple throwing. Bubba Baker returns to bolster an already strong pass rush.
Miami's margin of victory over Buffalo is likely to be provided by Uwe von Schamann, one of the league's best and longest field goal kickers. The Bills must trust Nick Mike-Mayer, and he is not in Von Schamann's class. With the spread less than three points, and the Dolphins playing superb defense, this is a spot.
The only other selections rate $250 each, and one of those is provisional. Chicago gets the nod as a 3 1/2 underdog at home to Denver. The Bears tend to play good football at the end of a season, long after they have been eliminated from everything. They are doing it again this year, and their defense promises to put heat on Craig Morton.
Green Bay keeps coming on, so I can't ignore them getting 3 1/2 at the New York Jets. The New Yorkers are going to be hard-pressed to win, let alone cover.
And, finally, there is San Francisco at New Orleans. If the 49ers need another victory to assure the home field for the NFC playoffs, I'll give the seven points. Should Dallas (favored by three) be upset by the New York Giants Saturday, I'll pass the S.F.-Saints game.
In other games, Seattle is two over Cleveland, Minnesota three over Kansas City, New England six at Baltimore, Houston one over Pittsburgh, Philadelphia 7 1/2 over St. Louis, Cincinnati one at Atlanta, Washington two at Los Angeles and (Monday night) San Diego 6 1/2 over Oakland.
Last WeekSeason Totals $+2,475
Last week's results: Cleveland, getting three, lost to the Jets, 14-13, plus $250; Detroit, giving four, defeated Minnesota, 45-7, plus $750; Cincinnati, even, defeated Pittsburgh, 17-10, plus $750; Green Bay, giving three, defeated New Orleans, 35-7, plus $250; Kansas City, giving one, lost to Miami, 17-7, minus $275; Dallas, giving 3 1/2, defeated Philadelphia, 21-10, plus $750.
Won-lost record: 36-33.