Warning: this column could be hazardous to your wealth.

The package arrived by special messenger. Inside was a grapefruit-shaped hunk of glass filled with a cloudy substance, a page of instructions and a note of apology signed: Madame Zelda.

For years, the note explained, she had been spiritual counsel in athletic matters to Edward Bennett Williams. It was Madame Zelda to whom Williams turned when he needed wit and wisdom in public as chief operating officer of the Redskins.

She was funny, but couldn't forecast rain in the tropics.

Her performance for Williams in baseball had been better, until he asked her crystal ball what was needed to make the Orioles champions once more and all the faces that hopped into focus were hitters. She has been looking for work since early June.

Not quite begging, she said innovations in the occult now allow her to predict the NFL races with stunning accuracy. Would I please give her once more chance?


Impatient, I massaged the area marked fast-forward; all of a sudden, clear as could be, came the image of a blue-green bird with an odd-shaped beak. Of course, the Seattle Seahawks are going to be champions of the American Conference.

More manipulating revealed the Seahawks intercepting Dan Marino often enough to make the AFC title game a rout after the third quarter.

Say what?

Dan Marino?

It did not take celestial forces to reassure Dolphin fans that darling Danny shortly would be trit-trotting back to camp as he did yesterday. Look for Eric Dickerson to do the same soon with the Rams. The season will not start with the league's most valuable arm and legs lounging in front of a television.

Marino and Dickerson are bright enough to realize they cannot do anything legal the next several months that will command what they earn from throwing a football and running with it; their respective managements also will bend off the field, or their teams will break on it.

Probably, holding out will prove beneficial to Dickerson. More and more teams are deciding not to work their prime backs very hard in preseason games. Besides, Red Grange once played seven games in nine days; Mike Rozier has a chance to gain 1,000 yards in two different leagues this year.

Marino will be more successful when he returns than Dickerson, for he has better players around him and a superior coach. Don Shula very likely could win eight games for the Dolphins with Flipper at middle linebacker; now there are indications he has the makings of a decent running game.

Still, the Seahawks are going to win one of the two toughest divisions in the league, the AFC West. One reason is that their out-of-division schedule is not especially difficult. They play two AFC East teams, but not the Dolphins; they play two AFC Central teams, but not the Steelers; they play two mediocre NFC West teams, the Saints and Falcons, and two very good ones, the 49ers on the road and the Rams at home.

Brilliant as he may be, Al Davis will not be able to arrange a trade for the quarterback capable of lifting the Raiders above the Seahawks. Pity, for the Raiders are loaded everywhere else, having also stocked the Redskins at wide receiver the last two years in trades and helped a few other teams this preseason with their cuts.

For surprises, Madame Zelda offers one in each conference: the Bengals in the AFC Central and the Vikings in the NFC Central. Under new Coach Sam Wyche, Cincinnati lost its first five games last season and still finished 8-8.

Sound familiar? Could we have a blossoming Joe Gibbs?

Madame Zelda nods yes.

Near the end of last season, the Vikings were about as pitiful a product as the NFL has ever offered. No way returning Bud Grant won't make them twice as good as that three-victory effort a year ago, especially in a division half as good as the AFC West and NFC East.

Madame Zelda insists the Cowboys will be lots better than many other seers have suggested. When Tom Landry said his team ought to be picked fourth in the NFC East, most preseason magazines agreed. Because they have a terrific defense, look for the Pokes to end the season in a familiar spot -- second to the Redskins.

The Cardinals?

They were sweethearts of the sporting scribes, until the preseason games began. After three tests, St. Louis quarterbacks had been sacked 24 times, or 17 more than their Redskins counterparts. Needing to replace Neil O'Donoghue, the Cardinals saw their alternative go one for three in preseason field goals.

If the Cardinals had offered twice as good a deal for Tony Zendejas as the Oilers, General Manager Bobby Beathard was asked, would the Redskins have taken it?

"No," he replied, quickly and emphatically.

The Redskins have completed what may have been their finest preseason ever, going unbeaten and, better yet, relatively injury-free.

Madame Zelda's ball pictures them at 12-4, with the Cowboys and Giants as the National Conference's wild-card teams. The 49ers and Redskins clearly are the best in the NFC but, when I asked which would meet the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the ball began gurgling. Soon, it stopped completely.

Repairs will be completed by Christmas, she promised.