A fortnight ago, after his Dolphins were routed by Indianapolis, Don Shula told me that the Colts were "a team on the verge." Last week, the same Colts journeyed to New England and failed to score.
Years of alert study have taught me not to argue with the assessments of Shula. So I choose to believe that the Colts are indeed on the verge. But I also have concluded that in this season of surprises and strike-induced mirages, the verge is not a very good place for a team to be.
Last week's schedule featured four long-scorned clubs on the brink of respectability. The Saints, aided by Giants injuries, made it over the top, at least for the moment. The other three slid painfully back down the slope toward mediocrity. The pratfalls were different but the bruises ached with great similarity. So, perhaps, did the causes. The Chargers, Oilers and Colts all had opportunities to sprint to the vanguard of divisions that they had long viewed only from the rear. Unfortunately, assorted meddlers alerted them to this fact. Uptight and confused, aware that they were really not ready for prime time, they turned Sunday afternoon into a bad version of "Saturday Night Live."
Not even the most delirious San Diego fan expected the Chargers to win them all, especially in places like the Kingdome. When Dan Fouts was unable to start, Seattle became a very hot side in the game. On the field the Seahawks were even hotter, winning, 34-3. Now the Chargers must look ahead at a rough schedule featuring two Denver games. For solace, there is at least the observation of their aggressive operations director, Steve Ortmayer: "When I was with the Raiders, we must have gone into that Dome in first place half a dozen times and gotten our butts whipped all but once. The Dome can produce fluke routs. They can be shaken off."
The Oilers will have more difficulty shaking off their 40-7 loss to Cleveland: it happened in their own dome. The brutal beating also left the Oilers crippled. They began this week's practice without a single ambulatory inside linebacker.
If the Colts seem to run hot and cold, there is a reason. This indoor team hasn't figured out how to weather a storm. Throughout his career, Eric Dickerson has had few good games in cold weather. He gained 117 yards in New England, but never looked enthusiastic about his chores. Gary Hogeboom appeared lost in the chill winds. And just when the Colts were beginning to look like a team with decent, intelligent management, owner Bob Irsay burst onto the sidelines to demand a quarterback switch. The Colts lost by 24 points. The real question is whether they lost their sense of direction.
One of the most interesting matchups of the week features two of these teams struggling back toward the verge. Indoors at home, the Colts are favored by 3 1/2 over Houston. The Oilers must patch up their interior linebacking in the hopes of stopping Dickerson. They also must try to end a 12-game point spread losing streak in road games against AFC East opponents. Eric is hardly a man for all seasons, but he'll love that climate control and dome cooking. Colts minus 3 1/2.
The turkey of the week, perhaps of the year, is today's struggle between 1-9 Kansas City and 2-8 Detroit. These clubs are on the verge of nothing but catching the first flight home after the season. The Lions, at home, are favored by 5 1/2. In a desperate ploy to lure 10 or 11 viewers to their sets, NBC is placing a psychologist in the booth to analyze the problems of losers. The shrink should really analyze anyone who tunes in. Unfortunately, that would make me a target. I'll be glued to the tube to find out if this is the sixth straight year in which the underdog covers a Thanksgiving game in Detroit. Take the Chiefs plus 5 1/2.
On rare and cherished occasions, a person gets to wager on a team that is better than its opponent and is receiving points in the bargain. That should be the case when the Eagles get 3 1/2 at New England. As predicted here, the Eagles suffered an understandable letdown last week after a month of intensely emotional football. Their loss to St. Louis was the fifth major clinker they have played under Buddy Ryan. The first four times it happened, they rebounded to cover. The best bet on the card is the Eagles plus 3 1/2.
The Dolphins have been an every-other-week team for two years, so conventional logic dictates a play against them as road favorites by 1 1/2 in Buffalo. But they are still smarting from their loss to the Bills in Miami, and they have covered in seven of their last nine revenge games within their division. Dolphins minus 1 1/2.
Can the Chargers recover in time to handle Denver? The Broncos are favored by 2 1/2 in San Diego. John Elway is playing as if he can whip anyone. But remember that the Broncos have just faced the Bears and Raiders. That parlay can leave a team emotionally and physically battered. I'll go one more week with San Diego, plus the 2 1/2.
The Redskins are 3 1/2 over the Giants. The Giants should be ready to pack it in for this sad season -- but not quite yet. A victory here would salvage a lot of pride. Technical factors point to a New York upset here, but Joe Gibbs is the king of winning after short work weeks. So this one is a pass.
Last week: The Raiders, getting 2 against Denver, probably cured my Silver and Black addiction for the year, losing, 23-17. The Bills, plus 3 1/2, beat the Jets, 17-14. The crippled Giants, plus 2 1/2, bowed to New Orleans, 23-14. The Cardinals, plus 7, upset the Eagles, 31-19. And on Sunday night, the Dolphins won my rubber game, getting 2 and beating Dallas, 20-14.
Record for week: 3-2.
Record for season: 21-13-1. To paraphrase trainer Jack Van Berg's wonderful remark after he lost his third straight Breeders' Cup Classic in a photo finish, I'm about three crucial fumbles away from being out of debt. That's called on the verge.