The idea was to celebrate the holiday with a nice country lyric. Feeling lonely, unappreciated, unable to pick any winners? Settle down with Moe Bandy crooning, "It was always so easy to find an unhappy woman . . . 'til I started lookin' for mine." Or try Tom T. Hall's touching holiday message to an ex-girlfriend: "I only think about you when I'm drunk."
But on this final weekend, when some teams are desperate to survive and others are merely doing time, Folsom Prison minstrel Johnny Cash seemed most appropriate of all. Unfortunately, the Man in Black is unavailable to participate in this column. Ever since he started believing that he is really Jerry Glanville, all the singer wants to do is fight.
Glanville, the feisty black-clad Houston Oilers coach, seems to be equal parts Folsom Prisoner and Al Davis. With the Raiders in decline as victims of too many cover stories in Gentleman's Quarterly, the no-longer-meek Oilers have inherited the NFL's license to pillage and plunder. Even the lone handicapper in the nation who picked them to win their division -- hold the applause, please -- could hardly foresee the spearing and gouging orgy that has repainted the Oilers' colors from baby blue to black and blue.
Several victims have complained about the Houston tactics this year. But it took another coach who often wears black, Chuck Noll, to bring the issue to a boil. After his Steelers were defeated last week at Houston, Noll subtly transformed the ritual postgame handshake into a hammerlock. As he berated Glanville for his players' attempts to wound Steelers running backs, Noll might have evoked another lyric for his relations with the Oilers coach: "If the phone don't ring, you'll know it's me."
Last year I voted for Noll as AFC coach of the year after he rallied his team from a 1-6 start and made a sorry bunch respectable. This year, with the playoffs a distinct possibility, Noll gets the trophy again. That is, if Glanville doesn't assign someone to mug him and wrestle it away. Whatever happens, Noll is also entitled to a special Emmy award for elevating the handshake to a dramatic adventure. He refuses to shake hands with Cincinnati's Sam Wyche, perhaps for fear that poor Sam, in his continuing efforts to solve his late-game clock blunders, will steal his watch. And now Noll has varied his act by refusing to release his grip on Glanville.
This week Noll and Glanville stand at the vortex of perhaps the most hotly contested division race. The Cleveland Browns are the best team in the AFC Central. But they must play the angry Steelers in Three Rivers, where the Browns have won once in history -- failing to cover at that. The Oilers get to vent their rage on the nonviolent members of the division, the Bengals.
The Oilers are favored at home by 6 1/2. Johnny Cash himself couldn't serenade me into laying a touchdown with them. But on Saturday, the Steelers are getting 3 1/2 from the Browns. The men in black and gold are also getting my attention.
I have long figured that the "need-to-win" factor was overrated and already incorporated into the betting line. This year I asked stat guru Dan Gordon to quantify that factor. The result is startling: teams that need a final game win for survival in the playoff race are 17-1. Teams that merely need a victory to secure home field advantage are 1-6. The Steelers fall in the former category, the Browns in the latter. I will avert my eyes from Mark Malone and suffer with the Steelers plus 3 1/2.
The Vikings, favored by 3 over the visiting Redskins Saturday, also benefit from that 17-1 stat. But I rate the Redskins the better team. The only thing I like better than a strong stat is a superior team getting points. Redskins plus 3.
Connoisseurs of cruelty from Genghis Khan to Glanville treasure the memory of the 1984 bloodbath between the Bears and Raiders. Mike Ditka recalls it as the victory that established the Bears' image for their future Super Bowl campaign. The rematch this week may be less wild. The Bears are crippled and the Raiders appear to have lost some interest. But a vast personnel shakeup should have the Bears in an approximation of their old-time fury. And they don't want to enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. The game is pick 'em. Take Chicago.
A week ago the Buffalo Bills appeared in control of the AFC East. Now they are out of the playoffs. Marv Levy is a fine motivator, but even he will have trouble exhorting his disappointed troops to play hard in Philadelphia. Buddy Ryan's team always plays hard, and superstar Reggie White is shooting for a sack record. I'll take the Eagles minus 2 1/2.
Finally, for those who don't mind eating hamburger for Christmas dinner, I offer the special feast of the worst game on the seasonal menu. Or maybe the worst game on any season's menu. The Detroit Lions are favored by one point in Atlanta.
The kindest thing to be said about the Falcons is that, with cocky and promising young quarterback Chris Miller in charge, the offense is no longer a complete embarrassment. Atlanta defensive players no longer turn their backs during Falcons "drives." In addition, the Falcons tend to play hard in hopeless situations. They have won their last four finales while out of contention. The Lions have lost their last five closers, and there appears to be little reason to expect them to show up for this road game. Gerald Riggs will run for touchdowns. The Lions will run for the bus out of town. In the first Holiday Hamburger Special, pass the ketchup and take the Falcons plus 1.
Last week: The Eagles, plus 2, routed the pathetic Jets, 38-27. The Packers, plus 7, lost to the Giants, 20-10. The Colts, plus 3 1/2, beat San Diego, 20-7. The Raiders, getting 2, bowed meekly to the Browns, 24-17. And the Redskins, getting three, lost the game to Miami, 23-21, without ever being in danger of not covering the spread.
Record for week: 3-2.
Record for season: 33-21-1. Save the applause for the playoffs. For now I'll settle for a postgame handshake.