In case you haven't noticed, the NFL playoffs will begin in one month. This prospect should be enough to give any red-blooded fan a rarefied blend of hot flashes and cold sweats, sweet dreams and sheet-tearing nightmares. All of which are reasons we are "in the grasp" of this sport.
Unfortunately, the playoffs may also make the avid football nut feel like, shudder, a hockey fan. The new playoff format, as I understand it, welcomes everybody but New England.
But there is good news in all of this. The team that has become one of my favorites this year would make the playoffs if they started today. This club has everything the NFL ever wanted. Four games decided on the final play, the last two being victories in overtime. A .500 percentage, quintessential parity or mediocrity. (You get a free choice there. As A.J. Leibling once wrote, "One man's fish is another man's poisson.") Let's hail those battling Seattle Seahawks.
They are the reason that I am initiating my first contest. Quick, name six Seahawks. If you can do this in 10 seconds -- and if I decide to believe you -- you win an all-expense tour from Natick, Mass., to Foxboro for a Patriots game. Doug Flutie once took this historic route. Then he proceeded to win five of seven starts. This is the best record compiled by a New England quarterback since . . . Well, that's a later contest.
Back to the Seahawks, where I'm about to give some hints to my contestants. You remember Dave Krieg, the quarterback who drops the ball about once out of every five times he cocks his arm. There's that fine receiver Blades from Miami. But it's up to you to figure out if he's Brian or brother Bennie. No points are awarded for the departed Brian Bosworth, who was signed for about $100 billion worth of steroid cash and once tackled John Elway.
So send in those Seahawks entries as fast and furiously as you can. Two things to keep in mind. First, the limit is 10 seconds. Second, I won't believe you.
One serious thought about Seattle. This is a disciplined, extremely well-coached club. Chuck Knox is the kind of guy, you tell him to lose 30 pounds and he loses 50; tell him he's picked to finish last and he'll contend for the playoffs. By the way, when he sheds his stoic sideline image, he happens to be a terrific guy to spend an evening with. On that subject, so is Ray Perkins, unfairly sacrificed by Tampa Bay this week. You say you don't believe that. This is your last chance to trust me. But sorry, in the contest I still won't trust you.
A few other awards of merit for the likely playoff teams:
The most erratic team is Cincinnati. Are the Bengals distracted by Coach Sam Wyche's feuds and fines? Sam doesn't buy such silly theories and neither do I. Good teams ignore the distractions. And two factors in the Bengals' defense are less than good. They don't rush the passer and they don't cover receivers. These can be problems at this exalted level.
The most frustrating team is Philadelphia. Randall Cunningham is the NFL's human highlight film. Reggie White is the best defensive player in the league, Andre Waters the dirtiest. These guys are scary. Especially to their fans. So somehow they are only 7-5.
The most boring team is the New York Giants. Good yes. Interesting, no. Here are the things that rank them just above the educators who made a whole generation read "Silas Marner" in high school.
Wake me up and demand some selections.
The flashy Packers are favored by 3 1/2 over the anonymous Seahawks. The dome-based Seahawks happen to be a surprising 9-5 on real grass. They have won six of their last eight in the last month of the season. Now let's get to the juicy stuff.
In Packers games after they have played Minnesota, the underdog is 5-0. And as everyone who is entering my Seahawk contest undoubtedly knows, the underdog is 6-0 in games when the Packers face non-divisional foes in Milwaukee. Seahawks plus the 3 1/2.
The Redskins are rated four points over the Bears at RFK. The Bears have been winning on class and innovation. So were the Dolphins before the Redskins mugged them last week. The dogs happen to be 9-0-1 in the last 10 Redskin games against the NFC Central. The Bears are almost certain to be without the courage and leadership of Dan Hampton. And they are 2-10 without him since the start of last year.
The Redskins are rolling in playoff gear at just the right time. Washington minus 4.
The suddenly awesome Bills are favored by five at Indianapolis. Eric Dickerson reverted to his patented I-don't-care-why-should-you mode last week. But the home team is 11-1 in this series. The Colts are solid as a late-season home dog. The Bills are in a sandwich between their wild Eagle game and the Giants next week: they might care almost as little as Dickerson. Be a glutton for punishment. Colts plus the five.
The Saints, who are getting 4 1/2 in Anaheim, messed up what should have been an easy victory last week in Dallas. Usually when they commit such a crime, they sulk and get slaughtered the next week. But, the Rams have the 49ers next week, so their minds may be elsewhere. Besides, I can't resist an event that provides my Stat of the Week: The Saints are 4-0 in their second straight road game during the second half of the season -- when the first game was not played east of the Mississippi. Some gentlemen in white coats seem to be approaching at this point. Maybe they'd like this opinion. Saints plus 4 1/2.
Monday Night, the Raiders are three at Detroit. The Lions are in a Bear sandwich: a heart-breaking loss last week, a hope for revenge next week. And Monday nights were made for the Silver and Black. Raiders minus the 3.
Last week: Giddy with my 5-0 shutout the week before, I came out slugging. I ended up needing an overtime to avoid an 0-5 knockout. The Eagles, getting three in Buffalo, staged a great comeback and offered Randall's highwire heroics. And still lost, 30-23. The Falcons, laying 2 1/2 at Tampa Bay, bowed by 23-17 in a game so weak that it got the winning coach fired. The Saints, giving one in Dallas, contrived to lose, 17-13. The Colts, getting 2 1/2 in Phoenix managed a half-point loss, 20-17. But oh, those crowd-pleasing Seahawks. It took them longer than the designated 60 minutes, but it was worth waiting for. At pick'em, they beat the Oilers in overtime, 13-10.
Total for week: 1-4,
Total for season: 33-32. With this brand of mediocrity, I might have to move to Seattle.