This figures to be the year the San Francisco 49ers pay a price for Bill Walsh's highly publicized "genius."

The coach of the defending Super Bowl champions is a brilliant offensive technician. His team's record over the second half of last season was, in great part, a testament to mind over matter. Physically, San Francisco didn't scare anybody.

What developed, however, as the 49ers compiled one victory after another was Walsh's willingness to go along with the genius label. Not that he failed to give proper credit to his players. He did. But rarely did he back off when it came to accepting credit for having outsmarted opposing coaches, Tom Landry included.

Walsh deserves all the nice comments that have come his way. That does not mean Landry, Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Chuck Knox are any less competent--and all have stood the test of time. Before making Walsh the "coach of the 80s," remember that Hank Stram once was the consensus for "coach of the 70s," but it didn't happen that way.

What the heck. Maybe Walsh was just being honest with himself. But the end effect is to have made the 49ers' task even more difficult this season. It's tough enough being No. 1 on the hit parade. That guarantees every team on the schedule will be that much better prepared emotionally for San Francisco this time around. But Walsh has given opposing coaches extra incentive to impart to their squads--to try to beat a man who doesn't mind acknowledging that, yes, he is smarter than the other guys who draw Xs and Os on the blackboard.

The Los Angeles Raiders, for example, didn't look too dumb on defense last Sunday as they defeated San Francisco, 23-17, after having trailed, 14-6, in the first half. The 49ers' offensive line is not nearly as strong, at the moment, as it was in Super Bowl XVI.

And the running backs don't look that formidable, either. I wonder what Ricky Patton did to deserve to be cut?

By the time December arrives, I have a hunch that San Francisco will be back in first place in the NFC West. The acquisition of tight end Russ Francis is going to make Joe Montana's passing attack better than ever, in time. But for now, the 49ers are struggling, and Denver isn't likely to provide instant relief Sunday at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos are favored by one point. I'll give them another chance, despite last week's disappointing effort against San Diego, for an imaginary $250.

I'll also string along this week with the New York Jets, for $250, as a one-point favorite at New England, and with Pittsburgh for $500, the Steelers being a one-point underdog at home against Cincinnati.

The Jets aren't going to the Super Bowl, not so long as Richard Todd is the quarterback and Walt Michaels is the coach. Todd is inconsistent; Michaels will never be mistaken for Walsh. Otherwise, the Jets are formidable. New England's 23-13 victory in Baltimore was not impressive.

The performance by Pittsburgh's offensive line Monday night in Dallas was dazzling. When was the last time Dallas' front four was handled so thoroughly? Randy White, Too Tall Jones and Harvey Martin won't be outplayed like that again this season.

The Steelers' offense is probably the best in the NFL, until the inevitable injuries start to take their annual toll of the veterans. The Steelers' defense is still excellent against the run, weak against the pass. Kenny Anderson and the Bengals are going to score at least three touchdowns. I'm betting Pittsburgh will score more against a Cincinnati defense that may not be as good as many people think.

In other games, Las Vegas lists Buffalo by 3 1/2 over Minnesota (tonight), Miami 13 over Baltimore, Dallas five at St. Louis, Los Angeles Rams two over Detroit, Chicago five over New Orleans, Atlanta 2 1/2 over the Los Angeles Raiders, Cleveland 2 1/2 over Philadelphia, San Diego 2 1/2 at Kansas City, Houston 3 1/2 over Seattle, Tampa Bay 3 1/2 over Washington and (Monday night) the New York Giants 2 1/2 over Green Bay. [TABLE OMITTED]