One important difference between the NFC and the AFC survivors becomes glaring as the NFL playoffs begin. The five AFC teams have only one quarterback of championship caliber, Miami's Dan Marino. The five NFC teams have four proven competitors in Joe Montana (San Francisco), Phil Simms (New York Giants), Jim McMahon (Chicago Bears) and Danny White (Dallas Cowboys).
The Los Angeles Raiders, New York Jets and New England Patriots might be so solid in other respects that they still can claw their way to Super Bowl XX. But it isn't going to be easy. Anyone who watched the Raiders outlast the Los Angeles Rams Monday night on television knows how difficult it is for a team to look good when its most important operative is inept.
Yesterday Las Vegas listed Chicago as an even-money favorite to win the Super Bowl, followed by Miami, 4-1; the Raiders, 5-1; San Francisco 7-1; Dallas, 12-1; the Rams, 12-1; the Jets, 35-1; the Giants, 35-1; Cleveland, 40-1; and New England, 50-1.
"Of course it's a terribly short price on the Bears," Bob Martin acknowledged. "It reflects the fact that they have the easiest path to New Orleans and that a lot of money was bet on Chicago out here during the preseason, and the bookmakers are trying to discourage any more action on them."
That even-money price should do it. Remember, the Bears opened at 12-1 in the preseason future book and closed at 8-1 behind San Francisco, 3-1; Miami, 4-1; Seattle, 6-1; the Raiders, 7-1 and Washington, 7-1.
One or two particularly interesting matchups are possible, for betting purposes, before these playoffs are over. The wild card games present headaches, however, what with the Jets favored by three points over New England Saturday and San Francisco by three over the Giants Sunday. Both events will be played in the Meadowlands. PATRIOTS AT JETS
The Jets were favored by two points at New England on Oct. 20 and lost, 20-13. On Nov. 24, in Giants Stadium, the Jets were favored by three or 3 1/2 and won in overtime, 16-13.
Freeman McNeil, the running back so essential to the Jets' offense, was not in top shape for either game against the Patriots. A goal-line stand by New England turned the first game around, just as New York appeared ready to take command. The Jets had an opportunity to break open the rematch early, only to have to settle for two short-range field goals. After trailing by 13-3, the Patriots battled back to tie the second game in the fourth quarter.
One has to admire this New England squad. The defense has been outstanding since September, and the running game has compensated for the shortcomings of Tony Eason and Steve Grogan at quarterback. Irving Fryar has developed rapidly as a receiver and punt return man.
New England has covered the point spread 11 consecutive games. That is an amazing record. I don't see the Patriots being blown out by the Jets this time, either. But the edge goes to the home team, with a healthy McNeil likely to spell the difference between a narrow and a comfortable victory. The fact that Pat Leahy has been successful on 12 straight field goal attempts also makes selecting the Jets a little easier. Give the three points and cross your fingers. 49ERS AT GIANTS
The 49ers opened as a 2 1/2-point favorite over the Giants and quickly went up to three.
There is a widespread feeling that San Francisco is the only team capable of keeping Chicago from winning the National Conference. That may be accurate, but the 49ers had better be taking one game at a time or they never will get to Soldier Field.
The Giants' big little runner, Joe Morris, doesn't get the credit he deserves. The Giants' offensive line, to a man, believes that he is on the verge of becoming a superstar, that he continues to improve every week.
What also is being overlooked is that the Giants' offensive line is doing an improved job of providing running room for the backs. This does not mean that New York is about to run right at nose tackle Michael Carter and compile 60 minutes' worth of impressive statistics.
The Giants' running game may have developed to the point where the San Francisco pass rush will not be quite as effective -- and the 49ers' secondary is going to need all the help it can get Sunday inasmuch as Eric Wright is injured and will miss the game and Ronnie Lott will play with one hand in a cast.
Offensively, San Francisco's best lineman, Randy Cross, is out with a knee injury. Running back Wendell Tyler will be coming off a knee injury, if he is able to play, while the Giants welcome the return of Lionel Manuel, their most dangerous pass receiver.
The 49ers' best effort would be too much for even New York's tough defense to handle, but I have a hunch this is the perfect situation for the Giants. NEXT WEEK'S LINE
The early line on next weekend's games has Miami 10 1/2 over Cleveland (up from 10) at Miami and the Rams 1 1/2 or 2 over Dallas in Los Angeles.