When the late Joe Palmer noted that the only thing better than a lie is a true story that no one will believe, he was talking about horse racing. But this week the motto seems particularly apt for football.
Want a good lie? In the hours before New England faced a team disguised as the Miami Dolphins in the meaningless Monday night finale of the season, a rumor swept south Florida. Doug Flutie would start for the Patriots. Naturally, the point spread soared in favor of the Dolphins. Among many other bettors, the fine Hialeah horse trainer Howie Tesher wagered the equivalent of two yearlings, a tack room and a condo that the Dolphins would crush Flutie. The true story: Flutie never took off his headset. Steve Grogan was magnificent. The Dolphins failed to show up at Joe Robbie Stadium. But horseman Tesher took the loss in, pardon the expression, stride. This is a fan so dedicated to the Dolphins that his stable is decorated in aqua and orange. His only flirtation with bitterness came when he pointed at the Dolphin colors on the webbing that keeps his horses in their stalls. "All my horses are running loose," he said. "The aqua and orange can't stop anything."
It seems natural to apply the lie-truth formula to Sunday's NFL wild-card games. Lie: The Minnesota Vikings deserve to be in the playoffs. Yes, they have a solid record in nonscab games. But twice in the last month, they have had top teams -- the Bears and Redskins -- on the ropes. With a rare concoction of coaching and character they managed to blow both games. That left the door open for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Truth: Mediocre teams are condemned to live by a brutally honest form of etiquette. Somehow they know when they don't belong at the party, and they obligingly watch their coaches turn into pumpkins at midnight. So the Cardinals managed to lose their own finale at Dallas. And the Vikings backed into the postseason.
Speaking of coaches as pumpkins, the Vikings' Jerry Burns has announced he plans to start the wrong quarterback. Wade Wilson has the best yards-per-pass average in the league. He has bailed out Tommy Kramer on several recent occasions. So Burns, a man who doesn't play the percentages, will naturally turn to Kramer. He says it's a gut feeling. Vikings fans might also have some strong feelings in their gut Sunday. Call them queasy.
Lie: This is a preseason falsity. Remember when the Seattle Seahawks were supposed to go to the Super Bowl? They have not only failed to substantiate that prediction so far, they have also switched identities before our very eyes. A year ago, they impressed many with a late winning streak against teams that didn't care. This year they have won meaningful games back to back over such genuine contenders as the Broncos and Bears. They have proved at last that they can win the big ones -- and lose the little ones such as last week's embarrassment in Kansas City.
Truth: The Houston Oilers are a dirty team. In the same week when the Miami Hurricanes are eschewing fatigues in favor of Emily Post, the Oilers appear increasingly proud of their rough-and-tumble image. They have been kicked around for long enough. Now they love pretending that the Astrodome is Gilley's honky-tonk, the coach in black is Johnny Cash and they are the bouncers. Brass knuckles are the next best thing to talent.
Lie: The wild-card games are occasions for wild excitement. Let's face it, these affairs offer four hot-house grown indoor teams who are likely to cheerfully disappear when confronted with the carpeted tundra of Soldier Field or the snows of Denver and Cleveland. If the wild cards were college bowls, they would be the Supply Side Economics Bowl.
Truth: Somebody's got to pick the right side in these games. It might as well be me.
In the early game at New Orleans, with the Saints favored by seven, the Vikings have a powerful stat going for them. Since 1979, the underdog has covered in eight straight Vikings games played on Sundays at the NFC West. In addition, not counting the "war year" under Les Steckel, the Vikings are 10-4 as heavy road underdogs since 1978.
But the Saints finished as the second hottest team in the league. If the 49ers weren't in their division, they wouldn't be bothered with wild-card formalities. In playoff history, home teams in domes are 4-1 straight up, 3-1 against the spread. The Saints have a big edge in sacking quarterbacks, and even bigger advantages on special teams and in coaching. In traditionally cautious playoff action, it gives me great trepidation to lay a touchdown. But the Saints have gotten away with two consecutive sloppy victories. This week I believe that coach of the year Jim Mora has gotten their full attention. With four quarters of concentration, they should romp. Saints minus seven.
Without running star Curt Warner, the Seahawks, minus 2 1/2 at Houston, are not a popular side. I suspect that the price will be even lower by game time.
Seattle is bucking some strong trends here. Road favorites are 0-7 in playoff games since 1980. As someone at your New Year's Eve party surely mentioned, teams favored after playing Kansas City are 17-42-3 over the years.
In a matchup that deserves all the negative trends it can get, the Oilers also have their share. They have lost their last five post-Bengals games and they are 0-4 against winning teams since the strike. Most important, they aren't as good as the Seahawks. If the Seahawks continue their tendency to play well in big games, they should win. Seattle minus 2 1/2.
Last week: The Steelers, getting 3 1/2, could not overcome Mark Malone or the Browns, losing, 19-13. The Redskins, getting 3, beat the Vikings, 27-24. The Bears, giving 1, outlasted the Raiders, 6-3. The Eagles, the best team not to make the playoffs, gave 2 1/2 to Buffalo and won easily, 17-7. In my turkey special that became indigestible, the woeful Falcons, getting 1, bowed to the Lions, 31-13.
Record for week: 3-2.
Record for the whole glorious nonstrike season: 36-24-1.