Some teams wear their penalties like designer emblems on their clothes. Their infractions reveal their taste, their style, their place in the NFL crowd.
The Miami Dolphins, for example, are traditionally the least penalized team in the league. This can be interpreted as a great compliment to their gentlemanly demeanor and cerebral finesse; rivals also have suggested that it has something to do with Don Shula's powerful role on the competition committee.
The New York Jets are always among the greatest offensive holders. This reflects not a yearning for hug therapy but a genuine affection for slow-moving quarterback Ken O'Brien, who could not survive without such protection.
The Chicago Bears defensive line has spent large portions of recent games offside. Coach Mike Ditka sees this as a breakdown in discipline. Another view is that the frustrated linemen know that if they don't assault the quarterback in a hurry, their weak cornerbacks will be unable to cover any receivers.
Then there are the Los Angeles Raiders. They almost always lead the league in penalties. When cornerback Lionel Washington jumped offside a few weeks ago to give New England a free second chance at a game-winning field goal, owner Al Davis forgave: "I don't care about aggressive penalties. Howie Long is offside at least once a game. I won't knock a guy for trying to get an edge." Just win, baby.
But alas, the Raiders have been just losing. And their penalties have charted their failures. In the orgy of flags in San Diego Sunday night, there were no classic Raiders penalties. No defensive end ripped off a blocker's helmet and threw it at him. No one expressed his displeasure with Dan Fouts by attempting to break his jaw. Instead, the Raiders were guilty of passive, wimpy penalties, mostly the type that beaten blockers commit when they desperately hold the defenders who are streaking past them.
The sad fact is that the silver and black might as well be wearing pink and baby blue. Their quarterback of the moment, Marc Wilson, is the milk-swilling definition of a non-Raider personality. And the guys who once seemed fodder for the Police Gazette have appeared on two, count 'em, cover stories in Gentleman's Quarterly. This is the week when the Raiders will let the world know if they still harbor the old and cherished criminal tendencies, or if they are shooting for Vanity Fair.
The opponents are the hated Denver Broncos, coming off their exciting Monday night triumph over the Bears. The Broncos are favored by 2. Perhaps the Raiders must write off this sorry season. But they aren't likely to give up their angry self-respect.
The Broncos swept the Raiders last season. Teams that have been swept in this rivalry are 5-1 in revenge games the next season. In addition, the Raiders have been underdogs four times against Denver since 1979, and covered on all such occasions. Look for a lot more Raiders penalties Sunday, but expect them to be of the take-no-prisoners variety. Take the Raiders plus 2.
The Buffalo Bills were victimized by at least one inexplicable fumble call -- made all the more puzzling when the replay officials upheld it -- in their loss at Cleveland last week. They also saw kicker Scott Norwood miss two chip shots that could have kept them in the game. This week they are in the Meadowlands against the Jets, getting 3 1/2.
The Jets come off a less than stirring waterlogged victory over the sad Kansas City Chiefs. They held the Chiefs to only three field goals. As the Iran-Contra committee probably noted as it filed its report this week, the Jets are 0-8 after games in which they surrendered no touchdowns. Jim Kelly should have a fine afternoon against a weak secondary. Bills plus 3 1/2.
Like the Raiders, the New York Giants are 3-6 and struggling to salvage their season. They are at New Orleans, where the 6-3 Saints are favored by 2 1/2. With their best record ever at this stage of the season, the Saints are high. So are their fans. They are ready for a gala Bourbon Street wedding. They may get a funeral. This is one in which I put trends aside. The Giants are a better team. Giants plus 2 1/2.
The Philadelphia Eagles are one of the year's exciting teams, and quarterback Randall Cunningham is a revelation. That is why the Eagles are favored by 7 at home against St. Louis. But the Eagles have lost seven of their last eight to the spread after losing to the Giants. They also have been riding an emotional crest for a month. The Cardinals are the kind of team that keeps things close with late rallies. For good measure, here is stat guru Dan Gordon's number of the week: after the Cardinals play a three-game homestand, the underdog is 4-0 in the following game. Cardinals plus 7.
In the Sunday night game, the Dolphins will try to shoot it out in Dallas while the Cowboys seek to run Herschel Walker down their throats. Dan Marino is coming off one of his poorest games: he tends to rebound rather gloriously. And since the merger, the Dolphins are 10-0 as road underdogs against the NFC. Miami plus 2 1/2.
The Redskins are favored by 10 over the disheveled Rams Monday night. The Giants loom the following week and the Redskins are just 1-5 before showdowns with New York. I lean toward the Rams, but I refuse to bet on such a demoralized club, unless I find absolutely nothing else to do Monday night. No selection.
Last week: The Redskins, laying 12 1/2, cured me of laying double digits for at least another year, edging Detroit, 20-13, for a spread loss. The Falcons, plus 6, lost by 16-10 to Cincinnati for a push against the spread. The Bills, getting 7 1/2, were robbed by the refs but salvaged a poetic justice cover by losing, 27-21. The Oilers, plus 3 1/2, crushed Pittsburgh, 23-3. The Raiders, plus 3 1/2, covered on a late gift pass, losing to San Diego, 16-14.
Record for week: 3-1-1.
Record for season: 18-11-1. When you're above 60 percent, you can actually enjoy those penalty flags.