For the better part of three months, hamsters and other animals in small cages very likely have been giving my preseason wisdom about the NFL exactly what it deserved. Sorry about picking the Redskins to win the NFC East; sorry about insisting the Seahawks would make the Super Bowl; sorry for listening to a dingbat seer.
Madame Zelda was as spectacularly unreliable for me as she had been for Edward Bennett Williams years ago, when he was forecasting the fate of the Redskins before each season. I was thinking of promoting her, but since the ambassadorship to Ireland is filled, she's a free agent.
In truth, choosing the Super Bowl winner is fairly easy, because the best team in the league wins more than 70 percent of the time. Let somebody with more courage than brains bet against Richard Dent, Mike Singletary and history. Pass the chalk. Gimme those Bears.
In the 15 years since the NFL absorbed the American Football League and created wild-card playoff spots, the team that either had the top regular-season record outright, or tied for it, went on to win the Super Bowl 11 times. With the exception of the 1980 Raiders, then stationed in Oakland, the teams that did not belong in the postseason failed to win the Super Bowl.
The Dolphins were 26-2 during the regular seasons in 1972 and 1973 and also won back-to-back Super Bowls. Of the four Super Bowls the Steelers won during the 1970s, they had the best regular-season record three times. Also, Pittsburgh only beat one team with more than four regular-season losses in those Super Bowls, the 9-7 Rams of 1979.
Even in strike-riddled 1982, when five 5-4 teams and 4-5 Detroit got into the playoffs, the 8-1 Redskins, winners by two games in the National Conference, won the Super Bowl. Their opponents, the Dolphins, had been 7-2.
So justice usually is served in the playoffs. The teams that seem best suited for the Super Bowl actually make it more often than not. With the league seemingly trying to draw everybody closer to .500, the 11-5 Broncos and 10-6 Redskins still failed to advance beyond Christmas this season.
This practically mandates that the 8-8 Browns send their regrets to the 12-4 Dolphins. Why bother with the plane fare to Miami the first weekend in January, super-saver or not. Bernie Kosar has done some magical things in the Orange Bowl, though surely not this time.
The 15-1 Bears seem on a roll similar to 15-1 San Francisco's last season. The 49ers won the NFC West by five games and lost a harmless midseason game -- to playoff-bound Pittsburgh -- a year ago; Chicago won the NFC Central by seven games and had a potentially beneficial late-season loss -- to Miami -- this year.
How can a loss be a gain?
Because the Dolphins have a fine chance to requalify for the Super Bowl, and any sort of mental edge would be embraced by Bears Coach Mike Ditka. Not that Ditka is unable to be mighty persuasive on his own.
The 1984 49ers seemed to get better with each playoff game. They beat the Giants by 11 points in their first test; they beat the Bears by 23 in their second test, and the Dolphins by 22 in the final exam; the Bears are as capable this season, assuming reckless quarterback Jim McMahon doesn't fall on a live grenade.
This weekend, the home team wins one and loses one on the same field. The Jets slip by the Patriots in the Meadowlands Saturday afternoon and the 49ers beat the Giants in the Meadowlands Sunday afternoon. The stomach-turning possibility of two New Jersey teams in the Super Bowl gets squished very quickly.
Although they finished with 11-5 records and won against the other at home, the Jets scored 31 more points than the Patriots and allowed 26 fewer. But the Jets' left offensive tackle, Reggie McElroy, is dangerous -- to the Jets. He just might be to quarterback Ken O'Brien what the end of a conveyor is to five pounds of potatoes: instant sack.
The most recent impressions tend to remain the most vivid, if not the most valid. What I see is Michael Carter of the 49ers not allowing the Giants' Joe Morris 202 feet, let alone the 202 yards and three touchdowns he mustered last Saturday against the Steelers.
San Francisco's secondary certainly seems vulnerable, perhaps reduced to Redskins-reject Tory Nixon at one of the corners. But the 49ers offense was versatile and precise when it had to be against the Cowboys, turning a 13-0 deficit into a 15-point victory. And isn't Bill Walsh at least a two-point better coach than Bill Parcells?
All the winner of the 49ers-Giants game gets is the chance to become a semi-permanent part of the carpet in Soldier Field. If the 49ers win the wild-card game, the Bears will have serious payback on their minds. And with McMahon instead of Steve Fuller at quarterback this time. If the Giants come calling, ghosts of two old and proud franchises will get chased down.
The Bears were one of just two teams to score more than 450 points this season (San Diego, naturally, being the other) and the only one to allow fewer than 200. In fact, no defense came within 60 points of being as stingy as the Bears. Not since Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain started closing in the late '70s has a defense been so pointless to opponents. Not since last year has a such a dominant team taken aim on the Super Bowl.