My ESPN colleague Chris Berman had an amusing thought last week as he took the New Orleans Saints and 2 points against the Cleveland Browns. His theory was that, on the day after the Pope said Mass in the Superdome, the heavens would surely smile on a team called the Saints. For those who resisted such advice, it was no laughing matter when the Saints scored two extraordinary safeties to beat the Browns. I was even more perplexed when Dallas blew a comfortable lead in the waning seconds to, yes, the Cardinals.
Like any diligent trend handicapper, I called point-spread historian Dan Gordon to explore the Vatican Visitor factor. Did teams prosper after the pontiff graced their home fields? Should the religious load up on Saints and Cardinals when the pope is on our shores?
The Vatican logs might not be phrased quite this way. But on his first U.S. tour in 1979, John Paul II was due to appear in Washington in Week 6 of the NFL season, the same weekend the Redskins were to play the Eagles at RFK Stadium. This necessitated a switch in scheduling. That weekend the Redskins played the Eagles in Philadelphia, instead. Their game two weeks later was transferred back to RFK.
The result was a scheduling oddity. For four consecutive weeks, the Redskins played on the road. As if this chore was not formidable enough, it occurred in a bad year for travelers. In 1979, teams playing their third straight game on the road were 0-11 against the point spread. The Redskins were one of those victims. They lost in Philadelphia, 28-17. They also missed the playoffs in a tie breaker. One of the clubs that finished ahead of them was the Eagles.
There is no clear theological lesson in all of this. But in light of the damaged condition of the Redskins this week, there might at least be some inspiration. It was rumored that after the papal plane landed in New Orleans last week, one of the pontiff's chief aides twisted an ankle while debarking. This did not stop him from participating in the Mass. Joe Gibbs couldn't put it any better to his wounded charges. In this business, you've got to pray with pain.
Even in their weakened condition, the Redskins shouldn't need either bad puns or heavenly help to get past the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. One of the stark lessons of opening week -- especially to those of us dumb enough to pick Atlanta -- is that the Falcons are in almost total disarray. As mentioned last week, the firing of Dan Henning struck me as a mistake. I thought Marion Campbell could at least keep the defense alert. Scratch that thought.
But I can't lay 7 points with the aching Redskins on the road. The Falcons have lost only one of their last 10 home openers by more than six. Last week, I passed on laying 9 1/2 with the Redskins, and those who did came away with a lucky victory. While I pass again, here's ammunition for those who insist on backing the Redskins: They have won six straight against Atlanta. They have won eight of their last nine playing at NFC West sites. And the overrriding fact is that Gibbs' teams don't lose to bad opponents.
As the possible strike looms, one statistic is worth pondering. On the same prestrike weekend in 1982, visiting teams went 11-3 against the spread. When home teams flounder, crowds will chant, "Strike, strike!" This could erase much of the home advantage. Hoping that this is a factor, I happen to be going mostly with road teams.
Coming off a crushing road loss to the Saints, Cleveland is 6 1/2 over Pittsburgh. But the Browns have won only one of their last eight as home favorites during the first month of the season. The Steelers have won seven of their last nine as road underdogs in their division. And in the last seven meetings between these rivals in Cleveland, the underdog has covered six times. Look for a close game and take the Steelers plus 6 1/2.
Like the Browns, the Rams are returning home after a road upset, and they are favored over Minnesota by 4 1/2. But they are only 1-6 against NFC Central teams since 1984. The aging personnel on both sides of the Los Angeles line are showing signs of wear. The Vikings, on the other hand, come armed with the Stat of the Week. Ignoring the forgettable coaching reign of Les Steckel in 1984, underdogs have won 11 straight Vikings road games played west of the Mississippi since 1979. I like the Vikings plus the 4 1/2.
The 49ers looked pathetic in Pittsburgh last week, and now they must travel for a tossup game at Cincinnati. It's tough, but the last two times the 49ers have lost a road game and faced another one the next week, they have won. They are also 12-3 on the road against the AFC since 1980. And as they showed to my glee last week at Indianapolis, the Bengals remain a slow-starting bunch. They have failed to cover in their last four home openers. I like the 49ers at pick 'em.
Thwarted by bad weather and a quick-count clock that seemed to be borrowed from a local high school basketball gym, the Miami Dolphins found yet another bizarre way to lose in New England last week. But the last eight times they have lost to New England, the Dolphins have rebounded to cover the next week. Favored by 5 at Indianapolis, they are also as "cheap" a favorite as they have been in this series in five years. Dan Marino should strafe the Colts by more than 5.
The San Diego Chargers don't win very often in their tough division. To be precise, they've lost 10 of their last 11 in the AFC West. Outside the division, they're much more respectable. And after gaining 270 yards at Kansas City against football's best secondary, Dan Fouts should enjoy a home game against St. Louis.
The Cardinals' rally to whip Dallas makes them appear an inviting underdog at plus 5. But in the week after beating Dallas, NFC East teams lost 17 of the last 19 against the spread. The Chargers should grab for this one. I pick San Diego minus 5.
Last week's results: The Falcons, minus 1 at Tampa Bay, embarrassed themselves and all who picked them, losing, 48-10. The Colts, plus 5 against Cincinnati, covered by losing, 23-21. The Broncos, minus 3 against Seattle, won, 40-17. The Patriots, minus 6, beat the Dolphins, 28-21. The Giants, pick 'em in Chicago, were sacked, 34-19.
Season total: 3-2.