Tint this column with pastel ink, and be sure to include ice blue. Pencil in a few arrows, signifying wind whistling off the lake. This football weekend belongs to the weather man.
It should be the best weekend of pro football this season: four games, conveniently spaced over two days by your friendly networks, including all the solid contenders for the Super Bowl. There will be no idle moments in which one might have to shovel snow or converse with loved ones. Call it football saturation, the best thing that can happen to a true junkie short of the New Year's Day bowls. And this is even better, because the players admit they get paid.
The problem is the weather. History has given us Ice Bowls in places like Green Bay and Chicago. But they have been spaced over decades. The current freeze offers the prospect of at least two highly refrigerated games on one weekend.
"The Indianapolis Colts can never prepare for what they will feel when they emerge from the third base dugout at Municipal Stadium," says my top Cleveland meteorologist. "It is so cold that the hairs on your nostrils freeze when you breathe. They will be stunned." Even when not stunned, Eric Dickerson tends to lay the ball on the ground in big games. This will be a stern test.
"It is so cold that it hurts to inhale," adds my Chicago meteorologist, Max. "I think that the wind gets up its steam in Sault St. Marie or Banff or someplace, and it just picks up energy coming across Lake Michigan." The only thing I must add about Max, a veteran of countless major sporting events, is that he is almost never right. If you are following the Redskins to the Windy City, bring your bathing suit.
Approaching these four games, I feel like a man in a Midwestern blizzard. Chastened by last weekend's pathetic performance in the wild-card games, I don't know quite where to turn. I certainly don't want to turn to the Browns.
Every morning, just before he gets out of bed and hurls a perfect sideline strike to Webster Slaughter, Bernie Kosar prays that I will pick against the Browns. In an otherwise good season, I have been horribly inaccurate on Cleveland games. So in a normal week, I would pass their game entirely. But the playoffs demand a selection in every game. So here goes.
The over-and-under betting line on Dickerson's fumbles is two. This appears to be a good line. But even with that disadvantage, the Colts, getting 7 1/2, are formidable. Since the strike, they have covered in all three of their games against winning teams. They have covered in their last five games as road underdogs by seven or more. And they have won five straight on natural grass.
Both these teams create turnovers: since the strike the Colts are plus 11 in turnover ratio, the Browns plus 10. But only one of them is getting more than a touchdown from the oddsmakers. One additional stat: in the last five playoff games involving the Browns, the underdog is 4-1. Take the Colts, with a shiver, plus 7 1/2.
At this writing, it seems that weather won't be a dominating factor in Denver, where the Broncos are favored by 10 over Houston. It should be a balmy 25 degrees with no snow. The Oilers won't exactly flourish in their first outdoor game in almost two months. But they may be good enough to justify at least part of Coach Jerry Glanville's optimism. The Oilers are bucking several strong trends. After winning in overtime in the playoffs, teams are 0-4 against the spread since 1977. The Oilers are only 1-6 against AFC West teams since 1977. But Denver is laboring under the burden of the Stat of the Week. The last nine Super Bowl losers have failed to cover in their first playoff game the following year. The Oilers have been trying to emigrate from Houston for several years. I hope they at least enjoy Denver for a weekend. Oilers plus 10.
The 49ers are this season's designated juggernaut, universally picked to sail to a title as the Bears and Giants did. The Vikings are a perennial question mark. Coach Jerry Burns can't even decide on his quarterback until he wakes up with a "gut feeling." The gut feeling here is that the Vikings, getting 11 points, will keep this game close.
The Vikings are 6-0 as underdogs on grass since 1985. And teams that have won wild-card games in routs are 2-0 the next week. Overall, the wild-card winner has been 5-1 against the spread the following week. Vikings plus 11.
Finally, there is the matter of the Bears. They are fighting, feuding and angry at Coach Mike Ditka. They also have Jim McMahon back at quarterback. They are favored by 4 1/2 over the Redskins.
Having picked the Redskins to make the Super Bowl before the season, and having enjoyed several recent victories with them, I desperately wanted to pick Washington. But the Bears are seeking revenge from last year's playoff defeat, and playoff revenge teams are 12-7 since the merger. But even this stat is overshadowed by the quarterback factor.
Remember Week 6 of 1983? Okay, this is not a quiz. But that was the last time the Bears lost a game at home with a healthy McMahon. As for Doug Williams, even in his prime with Tampa Bay he never indicated that he could operate in frigid weather. As cold as the reader may feel today, I fear that he will be chillier when he watches the Redskins attempt to skate on the frozen carpet of Soldier Field. My opinion on this one is frozen: Bears minus 4 1/2.
Last week: The Saints, a team that I suspected was not quite ready for prime time, gave 6 1/2 and collapsed completely against the Vikings, losing 44-10. No matter how many times we watch that instant replay of Fredd Young's interception, the Seahawks giving 2, still lost to the Oilers in overtime, 23-20.
Record for season: 36-26-1. Message for the week: Count your regular season blessings and do not increase investments on these cold and tricky playoffs.