The single most important factor in successfully handicapping a single NFL game is luck. On any given Sunday, I would rather be lucky than smart.
Some teams are markedly better than others, obviously, but the element that separates a 9-7 team from a 7-9 team, more often than not, is the way the ball bounces. No team plays in good luck forever, and superior talent often will overcome minor adversity, but over a season, luck can make a big difference.
One classic case stands out this year. The Denver Broncos are good, but there is no way they would be 9-1 if they were getting only their fair share of the breaks.
Look at their last two games. In Los Angeles, against the Raiders, they were "beaten" on three different occasions, only to survive. Then, with less than a minute remaining in overtime, the Raiders had the ball and were trying to move within field goal range. Denver won, 22-19, on a 20-yard interception return and a field goal.
Sunday, in Mile High Stadium, that most unlikely ending was virtually repeated. New England, never having trailed, was moving toward field goal range with 1:45 left and the score tied at 19. Then, Mosi Tatupu fumbled, safety Dennis Smith picked up the ball and ran 64 yards for a touchdown. That was the seventh touchdown of the season for Denver's defense.
It all represents too many miracles in recent weeks to be ignored, and the Broncos are alone atop the AFC West instead of being 7-3. Only a fool would tempt fate by betting against Denver during this streak.
The Broncos are on a roll, they play strong defense and they have every reason to believe that somehow, some way, Somebody Up There is helping them along.
If you must wager on the Denver-San Diego game this Sunday, take the points and the Broncos. I'll pass. Denver's good fortune can't continue indefinitely. Or can it?
Other games this weekend find Las Vegas listing New England 13 over Buffalo, the Los Angeles Rams 3 over Chicago, the New York Jets 9 1/2 over Indianapolis, St. Louis 4 1/2 over Dallas, Washington 10 over Detroit, Kansas City 13 1/2 over Houston, Green Bay 6 over Minnesota, New Orleans at Atlanta even, the New York Giants 2 1/2 at Tampa Bay, Miami 16 over Philadelphia, Pittsburgh at Cincinnati even, San Francisco 6 1/2 at Cleveland and (Monday night) Seattle 3 over the Los Angeles Raiders.
I will go with St. Louis, Washington, Green Bay and Seattle for an imaginary $250 each.
The Cardinals blew a 13-3 lead over the Rams Sunday. But the Rams' defense is much tougher than Dallas' against the pass, so I can't see St. Louis' balanced offense having another poor performance. Neil Lomax was outstanding in Dallas three weeks ago. He can repeat. Danny White, who is not expected to play because of a shoulder injury, makes the Cowboys more dangerous than Gary Hogeboom ever did. Dallas, even at 6-4, continues to be the most overrated team in the league. Give the 4 1/2.
Washington struggled a little against Atlanta Monday night. The Redskins have to throw the ball, whether they want to or not. Detroit plays respectably nearly every week, only to lose frequently. Gary Danielson is the type of passer Washington can handle. Give the 10.
Green Bay is coming on. It probably is too late for the Pack to make the playoffs, but Forrest Gregg won't let up on his players until the season is over. Eddie Lee Ivery has given Green Bay some running to go with its fine receivers, who are healthy again. Tommy Kramer may return to quarterback for the Vikes. No matter. Give the 6.
Seattle has two shutouts in a row. They will not make it three against the Raiders. The defending Super Bowl champions are hurting, however, at several important positions. The overriding consideration here is emotion. Seattle usually plays over its head when given national TV exposure on Monday nights. Give the 3.