As soon as I heard about the dreaded chewing-gum attack at Candlestick Park, my mind reeled backward to the 1979 World Series. Many recall that as the Pittsburgh Pirates' "We Are Family" triumph over the Baltimore Orioles. A select few remember it as an exclamation point in the rambling tragicomic saga of Howard Cosell.
Baltimore fans were outraged over what they perceived to be Cosell's bias toward Pittsburgh. A particularly boorish group jostled Cosell's limo as he exited from one game. In the heat of the moment, the pioneering sports journalist, who had done brave and brilliant work staring into the teeth of everything from terrorist machine guns to Frank Gifford's "Monday Night" smile, was, for once, completely terrified. Raving Lear-like back in the hotel bar, he recounted many times how the dastardly hooligans had not only rocked his limo but sprayed his windshield with shaving cream. At one point he cried, "I have looked in the face of death tonight!"
"And it is white and foamy," muttered colleague Tony Kornheiser.
Perhaps this is the fate of everyone in the fun and games world: by our trivial tempests you shall know us. And the Candlestick tempest seemed especially symbolic of this NFL season. One 49ers fan topped off her night by joining the hecklers of Mike Ditka. The Chicago coach, accustomed to taunting but completely unfamiliar with losing by 41-0, took out the wad of gum he was chewing and hurled it into the crowd, striking the woman in the back of the head.
Bay Area police were quick to state the woman's complaint was "not exactly high priority." I see it as a high-priority definition of this weird season.
Once folks sequestered their women and children when the Raiders arrived on a mission of pillage. They huddled in secure shelters when the Monsters of the Midway began to snarl. They knew a voyage to Green Bay was a scorched-earth campaign, narrated in a John Facenda baritone about "the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field." Football was war, and its gladiators were larger than life. This year, it seems, football is kindergarten. And its mischief may be defined by one small weapon: sticky, unappetizing and harmless.
If those are the designated adjectives of the season, one proper noun that suits them perfectly is New York Jets. Joe Walton's warriors had their fate in their hands as they entered their last two key games at Miami and New England. They dropped it like a wad of old Spearmint, getting outscored in the two first halves by an impressive 62-6. Because of the season's bizarre parity, the Jets retain a playoff chance. In their dogged pursuit of harmlessness, they should take care of that matter this week when they entertain the Eagles.
The Eagles played their worst nonreplacement game last week, and they have been eliminated. But they still arrive bearing powerful numbers: They are 12-1 against AFC teams since 1979, and 17-2 as road underdogs outside their division since 1980. Under Buddy Ryan, they have lost five games by 10 points or more, as they did last week; they have won all five follow-up games. The only question is whether they will give up for the season. Don't expect Ryan to let that happen against his onetime employers. The Jets are favored by 2 over a better team. Best bet: Eagles plus 2.
On Saturday, the Packers get 7 points from the Giants in a Memory Bowl. A year ago, the Super Bowl-bound Giants crushed hopeless Green Bay, 55-24. To reach that total, they faked one field goal and kicked another late in the game. Forrest Gregg says he can't stay angry for a whole year. I think he can. Expect him to invite Bill Parcells to dinner about as soon as George Rogers hosts a banquet for John Riggins. In the meantime, for an hors d'oeuvre, take the Packers plus 7.
The San Diego Chargers lack the consummate collapsing flair of the Jets. But they are sinking almost as fast. Six weeks ago they beat the Colts with the aid of a fumble by Eric Dickerson. Now they are favored at home over the same Colts by 3 1/2. But the Colts have won their last four final road games. They also are 4-0 after losing while scoring 14 or fewer. For true trivia connoisseurs, the underdog has won the Chargers' penultimate game each of the last six seasons. Take the Colts plus 3 1/2.
The Browns are two-point favorites over the Raiders at the Coliseum. The Browns need the game badly and the Raiders are out of contention. Will the Raiders care? My sources say they will.
If they do, they will have several trends on their side. The Browns have a crucial showdown in Three Rivers Stadium next week, and they have failed to cover eight straight times before facing the Steelers. They also have lost nine straight to the Raiders. And their last two West Coast trips have been disasters in San Diego and San Francisco. Hoping some pride and poise still lurks behind the Silver and Black, I'll go with the Raiders plus 2.
Sunday night in Joe Robbie Stadium, the Dolphins are favored by 3 over the Redskins. Miami offensive line coach John Sandusky has done his usual first-rate job compensating for the loss of the great center Dwight Stephenson, and the Dolphins are murder in night games at home. But somehow this spread seems too high. The Redskins are 14-1 as road underdogs on real grass since 1971. It's your first opportunity to take points with Washington this season. Grab it. Redskins plus 3.
Last week: I will resist gloating or elaborating. This is not false modesty, it is fear of incurring the wrath of the Goddess of Wagering. The Packers, getting 4, defeated Minnesota, 16-10. The Bills, 3 1/2-point dogs, routed the Colts, 27-3. The Bengals, getting 7 1/2, lost at Cleveland, 38-24. The Patriots, laying 4, crushed the Jets, 42-20. And the Cowboys, getting 9 1/2, covered by losing to the Redskins, 24-20.
Record for week: 4-1.
Record for season: 30-19-1. Sixty-one percent is a wad any handicapper can be proud to chew on.