When a Super Bowl looms this close, it often begins to seem starkly, even numbingly, simple. The Cartesian thinkers who prefer the Washington Redskins have long since memorized their relevant equations. Dexter Manley will bury the limited Denver Broncos tackle, Dave Studdard. The Hogs will push their smaller rivals off the line of scrimmage. Doug Williams will throw long against the suspect Denver safeties.
The Sartrean philosophers for the Broncos have repeated similar theorems at stupefying length. The Broncos have the revenge motive after losing last year's game. The Broncos are smaller but quicker. John Elway is magic.
Every one of these points probably is true. The problem is that they are as unhelpful as they are obvious. If Descartes and Sartre had stopped at this level of insight, there might never have been an Existential Bowl. If modern football were this simple, this weekend's battle of wits might as well match Marion Campbell and Sam Wyche. Among the many reasons that Joe Gibbs and Dan Reeves are here in addition to having good players is a mutual sense of mystery. Assume that all the anticipated matchups unfold on schedule. Then it will be a close game, and could well be decided by trickery and intrigue.
So the most amusing story of a predictable week has been the subterfuge. The Redskins have practiced in one another's jerseys to foil any satellite spy photography. What a laugh the Washington counterspies must get when they imagine the Broncos espionage staff developing a film that shows a small fast guy streaking on an end-around in Joe Jacoby's shirt. I'll bet it would wreck Joe Collier's entire defensive scheme.
The Broncos, in turn, were forced to clear the hostile land outside their own practice bunker. Not only had a neighbor clambered atop his roof with what appeared to be a video camera, but a half dozen college students had engaged in unlawful assembly on a nearby hilltop. A few of those clever devils even attempted to confuse the Broncos with shouts of "Go Redskins."
Stopping just short of defoliating the hill, campus police cleared the interlopers with swift efficiency. By the old spying standards of Al Davis and George Allen, it was all, well, kid stuff. But it did evoke a rich historical vein. When I suggested that it was a legacy from the likes of Allen -- no distractions, no offensive points in the Super Bowl -- I was corrected by Dan Dierdorf. The ABC analyst and former St. Louis Cardinals line star said, "It's more of a legacy from Don Coryell, who happened to be one of Gibbs' mentors. Coryell was always moving us from one corner of the practice field to another because he saw George Allen under every rock."
All of this is not exactly cause for a seance with William Casey. But it's as good a subplot as we've got. After all, the Redskins did receive a pep talk from Oliver North before they came out here. There is now a report that Denver has countered by bringing in Fawn Hall for special consultation. This is not backed up by a single shred of evidence.
When the on-field shredding begins, look for more skullduggery. Of course there will be the obligatory Gary Clark end-around and the Steve Sewell-back-to-John Elway pass. But expect Gibbs and Reeves to proceed to even wilder schemes. My imagination stops at nothing short of a fake field goal and run by Ali Haji-Shank. Poor Ali would surely veer sharply to the left just short of the first down.
Since my once-great season has been heading in a similar errant direction, I have marshaled some trends under cover of darkness. It is time to pull open the veil.
Much has been made of the revenge factor for Denver. Teams returning the year after losing a Super Bowl indeed are 2-1. But there are 16 players remaining on the Redskins roster from the club that was embarrassed, 38-9, by the Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII. Those proud veterans will add plenty of their own revenge into their already strong edge in playoff experience.
Creeping age makes this probably the weakest Redskins edition since the first five games of the Beathard-Gibbs partnership. A particular cause for concern is the inability of the defense to make things happen. As Richie Petitbon says, "I've never seen a team get this far with so few fumble recoveries." As the numbers say, the Redskins turnover ratio is a weak minus-one since the strike. Denver's is plus 17.
But Denver's weaknesses are just as glaring. The Broncos have not beaten a winning team away from Mile High Stadium since 1984. Since the strike, they have managed only 25 sacks and yielded 26. The Redskins' sack differential, in sharp contrast, is 45-23. And the Hogs allowed only one playoff sack to Bears and Vikings lines that are far stronger than Denver's.
A few other trends: The Redskins have covered 15 of their last 16 as road underdogs on grass fields. They are 3-1 as playoff underdogs under Gibbs. Against common, nonstrike opponents this year, the Redskins are 5-0 and the Broncos 2-2. In the Broncos favor they have won four straight and the Redskins only three. Since Super Bowl X, the team with the longer winning streak is 10-1-1 against the spread.
Searching for the most meaningful angle, I think it will be the sack differential against the Elway magic. The Redskins will get to Elway. Williams will have time. The Broncos will face third-and-long situations, while the Redskins may avoid them. This is a wonderful Washington victory formula -- that only an Elway might wreck.
Finally, there is the number. It is a long one. Denver is favored by 3 1/2 points. This means that if the game were in Mile High Stadium, Denver would be 7 1/2. If they were playing on the moon, I would take Washington with a touchdown over Denver. On a neutral grass field, I'll take them with a bit more than a field goal. Redskins plus 3 1/2. Better yet, try to get some accommodating soul to lay 7-5 odds with no points. The Redskins will win this game. Try 24-21.