It should be a fine football weekend on tap. The NFL offers the slightly tainted matchup of the millennium in San Francisco. This presents excellence for those who want it. But there is also parity for those who wish that this was the National Hockey League. At the moment, almost everyone figures to make the playoffs. An 8-8 record is nirvana. If you're 7-9, do not pass Go, proceed directly to Vancouver.
Despite all the heroics, all the parity, all the illusions, something is missing. Pro football needs some kind of garnish on its wondrous chef's salad. It needs more rules.
Start with the Aristotelian concept that the ground can't cause a fumble. This technicality has brought tremendous excitement and suspense to the game. Once the Packers would host the Cowboys or Giants up on the gloriously redundant frozen tundra. Paul Hornung recalls that in those ancient times, if a guy slammed you to the turf and you coughed it up, it was a fumble. This produced sadly boring games that of course nobody remembers. We're lucky that such hits have been replaced by thrilling huddles of officials deciding whether the ground has caused a fumble.
But this modernization hasn't come far enough. Let's propose that a hit below the waist can't cause a fumble. A hit above the numbers shouldn't cause one either. Make it like a strike zone in baseball. Except it will be better than baseball. Because the football umpires get to confer after every play and if the jury is hung, we can just conclude that no tackle can cause a fumble.
That's pretty much what happens under the crowd-pleasing "in the grasp" rule. Defensive linemen hate this rule because they want clear shots at the quarterbacks who get all the attention and money. Quarterbacks hate it because they can adroitly sidestep or scramble and make a big play, only to learn that the defender has grabbed the imaginary flag from his pocket, just as the neighborhood wimp once did in junior high. This rule is far too limited. If the lineman breathes on the passer, we should invoke a new "in the grasp" rule.
The wonderful thing about these rules is that they place control of the game where it belongs -- with a striped band of part-time dilettantes who work weekends. Better yet, many decisions must be ratified by retired part-time dilettantes in replay booths. But the NFL has only begun to explore the possibilities of replay. We should demand a third opinion from the captain of the Goodyear blimp Columbia.
And for the ultimate fun addition to the sport, the replay booths should be staffed with the likes of Tip O'Neill and one-time special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Authority will be total.
But confused officials will be barred from reaching for their little field beepers and yelling "I am not a crook." The operative phrase will be "We blew an inadvertent whistle." As all fans know, an inadvertent whistle can't cause a fumble.
This week's lineup may have all of us whistling surrender. In Buffalo, the Bills are 3 over the Eagles, who are presumably drained after their thrashing of the Giants. But the Bills are coming off a rough Monday night loss in Houston. And the Eagles have covered 13 straight as road underdogs on artificial turf outside their division. Eagles plus 3.
The Falcons are giving 2 1/2 in Tampa Bay. Atlanta has lost 16 straight road games. But against the spread, they have won six straight in the second game when playing consecutive road games. They've shown that they can compete with good teams on the road. Now they've got to prove they can sustain it against a bad team. A step in growing up: Atlanta minus 2 1/2.
The Saints are favored by 1 in Dallas. After their big win over the Redskins, the Cowboys are becoming a "public" team. Don't forget that Dallas beat a Washington team that was playing its third game in 11 days. They also had that Texas Stadium Thanksgiving tradition going. The fact remains that the Cowboys are only 2-8 against the NFC West. They are still coming out of those doldrums. And the Saints usually beat the teams they should beat. Saints minus 1.
The Oilers are another popular bunch this week, following their exciting Monday night victory. This week they are pick-'em in Seattle. The Seahawks won last week with the aid of one of the most dismal inadvertent whistle calls in history. Even the zebras could barely keep from issuing public apologies for the blunder.
Logic points to the Oilers. I hate logic. The Oilers are only 2-7 on road artificial turf, 1-5 in other peoples' domes. And as Tip O'Neill undoubtedly mentioned to Ted Kennedy this summer, the home team is 6-0 in the first games played in Seattle every December. Seahawks are the choice.
In the privacy of Phoenix, the Cardinals will be 2 1/2 over the Colts. This game may be like watching cacti grow, but it is the Colts' first real grass game of the season. And Eric Dickerson loves the real stuff. The up-and-coming Colts plus 2 1/2.
Last week, the Eagles, getting 3 from the unbeaten Giants, routed them, 31-13. The Vikings got 2 1/2 from the once-beaten Bears and won even more easily, 41-13. The Falcons, getting 6 in New Orleans, lost 10-7 to cover the spread. The Steelers, giving 3, completely outclassed the unraveling Jets, 24-7. And those fighting Seahawks, getting 3 1/2, in San Diego, won in overtime, 13-10.
Total for week: 5-0.
Total for season: 32-29.