The last week of the regular NFL season is always dangerous one for those playin catch-up. The tendency is to overload on the 14 games this weekend in one final, sometime desperate, attempt to make up for all the unlucky bounces of the first 15 Sundays. Don't do it. No one can be certain how coaches are going to approach the last game if their team has been eliminated from playoff contention. They may go all-out all the way, but there is an equally strong possibility that younger, less experienced players will be given an opportunity to perform.
The games involving teams still struggling for playoff spots also carry extra considerations. The numbers tend to be inflated. Two cases in point this weekend are Pittsburgh at the New York Giants and Dallas at San Francisco. The Giants and the 49ers are favored by 9 points on the assumption the outcome is much more important to them than to their rivals.
The spread on these two games normally would be nearer 7. Though I expect the Giants and the 49ers to win and thus qualify for the postseason competition, I am not about to give away extra points in the belief that coaches Chuck Noll and Tom Landry are going to send their squads out for little more than a practice session.
The Steelers, despite being hurt at quarterback, will give it their best shot at the Meadowlands. Dallas, embarrassed in recent weeks by Chicago and Cincinnati, isn't going to roll over for San Francisco, although the 49ers have superior talent. SUNDAY'S SELECTION
I rarely mess around with bad teams. This week I'll make an exception: Indianapolis, giving 5 points at home against Houston.
The Colts have earned my admiration of sorts. Their quarterback, Mike Pagel, isn't much of a passer, and his receivers are college-grade. But Indianapolis' offensive line blocks smartly for a running game that is one of the most underrated in the league. The defensive front also is solid, as it showed two weeks ago in the 17-10 loss at Chicago.
Then, last Sunday, the Colts achieved (for them) the nearly impossible. They won on the road, in Tampa, 31-23. Now they have a chance to close the season with two victories in a row, with dreams of continued improvement in 1986.
The key consideration centers on the Colts' ability to run the ball against a Houston defense that is particularly weak against the run. Indianapolis should be able to control the line of scrimmage. Give the 5. MONDAY NIGHT
Los Angeles versus Los Angeles, the Raiders favored by 1 1/2 over the Rams at Anaheim. I'll take the Raiders.
Dieter Brock was 0-for-the-season in terms of effectiveness as the Rams' quarterback. Suddenly, last Sunday against St. Louis, the man from Canada looked good. One hopes it was a mirage. Certainly the pressure from the Raiders' defensive front will provide Brock a much stronger test.
This should be an interesting contest to watch. The Raiders probably will need a victory to reserve the home field advantage throughout the AFC championships. The Rams may need a victory -- if Dallas upsets San Francisco -- to gain the home field for the NFC playoff against the Cowboys.
Two of pro football's best runners will be on display. Eric Dickerson has had a mediocre season, operating in Coach John Robinson's college-style offense. The Raiders' Marcus Allen should be the MVP in the American Conference. He has had a tremendous year.
Quarterback Marc Wilson's inconsistency keeps the Raiders' offense sputtering, despite Allen's brilliance. If Wilson has another poor outing, against the Rams' fine defense, this game could be won by the underdog. But I like to back the Raiders when the number is small. They're so nasty. WASHINGTON AT ST. LOUIS
The Cardinals are the biggest disappointment of the season. There is no excuse for their offense to have broken down so badly. I'll take the Redskins, giving 7, though their chances of making the playoffs are slight. THE LINE
Las Vegas' other early week numbers had Denver 1 1/2 at Seattle, New Orleans 6 over Atlanta, Miami 17 over Buffalo, Chicago 7 at Detroit, New England 6 over Cincinnati, New York Jets 7 over Cleveland, Green Bay 3 at Tampa Bay, Minnesota 3 over Philadelphia and San Diego at Kansas City rated even.