Monday night's defensive struggle between Cleveland and Pittsburgh produced the sort of critical play many of us will never understand, no matter how long we watch NFL games.

The Browns led, 10-7, late in the fourth quarter and were in field goal range -- near the Steelers' 20 -- for Matt Bahr when quarterback Gary Danielson was sacked for a big loss on third down that forced the home team to punt.

High school quarterbacks know better than to commit such a blunder. Yet it happens repeatedly in professional games.

Those who had made a play on Cleveland desperately wanted Bahr to have a chance to make the score 13-7. That way, Pittsburgh -- which had momentum after trailing by 10-0 -- still would not have covered the point spread even had it won by 14-13, the number being 2 1/2 and the Steelers favored.

As things turned out, Danielson's third-down disaster didn't matter. The Browns prevailed, 17-7. But at the time it looked like the big play of the game. Thursday Night

Chicago is favored by 3 1/2 at Minnesota. Looks like an invitation to jump for the Bears, doesn't it? But Walter Payton didn't finish Sunday's game against New England, nor did Jim McMahon. Both suffered minor physical problems. If they are not 100 percent against the Vikings, anything can happen.

Bud Grant's teams rarely beat themselves. They are outmanned against the Bears, but they will be patient, play a low-risk offense and hope Chicago will make the errors. The emotional factor is totally with the Vikings. They were the worst team in the league at the end of last season. Now they are 2-0 and have a chance to go to the top of the NFC Central, briefly. Pass the game. Play of the Week

The New York Giants, at home, as a one-point favorite against St. Louis.

Phil Simms is a better quarterback than many fans realize. Now he has rookie George Adams to help with the running game (until Rob Carpenter returns) and catch a pass or two.

St. Louis has almost as many offensive tools as San Francisco. Few defenses are going to keep the Cardinals under 20 points. The most important factor Sunday, however, is the cluster of injuries to the St. Louis secondary. They are really hurting back there, and Simms should have one of his best days. For the Giants, Jess Atkinson should fill in adequately for the ailing Ali Haji-Sheikh in kicking.

The number for this game probably is going to go up nationally, particularly in the New York area. Monday Night

The number is right on the money, at 7, Seattle favored at home over the Los Angeles Rams. Eric Dickerson returns for the Rams, who still are waiting for Dieter Brock to display the form that gained him a big reputation in Canada.

Seattle is in high gear. The spread opened at 6 1/2 in a few places and the smart guys gobbled it up in a hurry. Game of the Week

San Francisco at Los Angeles Raiders. Forty-Niners favored by 3. I had intended to make a small play until seeing Jim Plunkett's performance in Kansas City.

Poor Plunkett. The thought of getting hit seems to rattle him so much that he wants to get rid of the ball, no matter what color uniform the player nearest to him is wearing. Against San Francisco, that can be disastrous. But the Raiders' defense will give Joe Montana a headache, too.

This is a good game to watch, not play. Indeed, this is an ideal week to go to school in front of the television set. All the games mentioned, plus Kansas City at Miami, should provide an educational background for future weeks. Redskins-Eagles

When was the last time the Redskins put two good halves together? They will win. But giving 14? There's no way I would give that many points right now. And there's no way I would take the Eagles, either. Pass it by. The Line

Las Vegas' early-week spread had Dallas 7 1/2 over Cleveland, Denver 6 at Atlanta, Detroit 4 1/2 at Indianapolis, Pittsburgh 6 over Houston, Miami 4 over Kansas City (Dan Marino is going to miss Mark Duper for six weeks), New England 6 at Buffalo, Green Bay 4 1/2 over the New York Jets, Washington 14 over Philadelphia, Cincinnati 4 over San Diego and New Orleans 2 1/2 over Tampa Bay.