The phone rang early Monday morning. "I guess you're going to take credit for picking the Redskins, giving one," the voice said, "even though the price was out to two by the time I bet it Sunday morning."
"Darn right I'm gonna count it," I answered. "This happens once or twice a year, the point spread fluctuating from the time I write the column (Tuesday) until kickoff. The spread can go up or down. Funny thing, I never get any complaints when it works to my disadvantage."
The number on the Washington-Dallas game went as high as 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 by the weekend, although "The Latest Line" still carried it as one Saturday morning. The line I use comes out of Las Vegas. Always has. For 11 seasons. It's the best national line I know.
"I'm still a little ticked, for not getting down early," the caller said. "You should talk the sports editors who run your column into running it later in the week."
It's a tough task, attempting to cover the spread. Anyone who does it publicly better be ready to incur the wrath of the nation's bettors when they feel they're being had. Certainly I've received my share of letters and phone calls about "highballing" or "lowballing" over the years. All I can do is play the game as straight as I know how, never changing the rules or the routine and believing, always, that the information I'm fed concerning the line is the best available at the time.
The Vegas line this week finds San Francisco favored by 6 1/2 over the Los Angeles Rams (Friday), Seattle 4 over Denver and the New York Giants 9 over New Orleans (Saturday), Cincinnati 13 1/2 over Buffalo, Detroit 2 over Chicago, Houston 2 over Cleveland, New England 10 over Indianapolis, Green Bay 7 at Minnesota, San Diego 2 over Kansas City, Tampa Bay 4 over the New York Jets, Philadelphia 3 at Atlanta, the Los Angeles Raiders 6 1/2 over Pittsburgh, Washington 6 1/2 over St. Louis and (Monday) Miami 6 over Dallas.
I'll take Washington for an imaginary $500 and Seattle, San Francisco, Miami and the Raiders for $250 each.
This is a classic example of going with the strength -- even though the favorites, in several instances, do not have as much incentive to win as do their rivals.
The 49ers were favored by 3 when they buried the Rams, 33-0, in Anaheim. If this game was perceived to be equally important to both teams the number would be 8 or higher. The fact that the Rams desperately need a victory does not overcome San Francisco's superior talent at virtually every position except running back. I can't see the 49ers letting up, not when they have a chance to set a record of 15 victories in a regular season. Give the 6 1/2.
Seattle plays its best in the Kingdome, where visiting squads often seem to suffer turnover-itis. Denver may enjoy a slight edge offensively, with its better balance, but Chuck Knox is worth a field goal in this high pressure situation and the Seahawks' defense will be the best unit on the field. Give the four.
Should Seattle be upset, the Raiders would have every reason to be primed for Pittsburgh, as a victory would give them the home field for the AFC's wild card contest. Even if Seattle wins, the Raiders aren't going to let up appreciably. Tom Flores figures to give Jim Plunkett more work behind Marc Wilson, and that's not a bad thought to consider in giving the 6 1/2. The Steelers will go for broke . . . and end up out of the playoffs.
Dallas would still be in the playoff picture Monday night should the Rams and Cardinals lose this weekend. That still doesn't make the Cowboys a winner at Miami, where Dan Marino will want to stay sharp against a good defense. Don Shula can't be happy with the way the Dolphins' defense has played recently. There's no way he's going to permit his squad to take it easy. Give the 6.
Washington was lucky to get out of Dallas with a victory. I'm still waiting for the Redskins to put two outstanding halves back to back. This could be the week. Indeed, it will have to be if Washington is to turn back a St. Louis offense that appears to have refound its confidence. This game offers a strong, veteran club against a strong, young club that has never faced championship sort of pressure . . . and on the road. Go with the old pros, giving the 6 1/2.