Well, at last it is all very clear for devoted followers of the National Football League's games of chance. The playoffs begin with American East meeting American West in the West, and American Central meeting American Wild Card in the Central. National West plays National Wild Card in West, Calif., and National East plays National Central at Central, Minn. As. for the championship games on Dec. 29, the American will be played either in West, Calif., Central, Pa. or East, Fla. while the National will take place either in East, Mo. or Central, Minn. Some say, of course, that these games will actually be played at NBC and CBS, with ABC, the Wild Card network, standing by in case Rhoda is injured in an automobile accident. Anyhow, there they are, gang, your basic Super Bowl contenders, who look enough like last year's to make a fellow conceal a yawn.
Halfway through the long, 14-game regular season it was all exciting and different. Remember the New England Patriots? They were 6-1 and had beaten Miami, Los Angeles and Minnesota, three of the teams that have since gained the playoffs once again. Remember the St. Louis Cardinals? They were 7-0 and had beaten Washington twice and Dallas once. But, alas, as the season droned on, the Patriots wound up in a medical clinic, and the Cardinals got back in form, barely staggering into the playoffs on Terry Metcalf's traffic violations and Jim Hart's rejuvenated arm. St. Louis on its fast start, and Buffalo, the Wild Card American East largely on two narrow victories over New England, are the two new teams in the playoffs, replacing Dallas and Cincinnati. Alone, they carry the hopes of the downtrodden against the Establishment teams in the holiday drive for spots in Super Bore 9. Sorry, Pete. Make that Super Bowl IX.
It would be lovely to think that the chances of the surprising Cardinals and the semisurprising Bills are excellent in these playoffs, but they are not. Right away, St. Louis must go to Minnesota and the natural ice of Metropolitan Stadium and face a team it lost to at home in a Monday night game that most home teams win. St. Louis can beat anybody if Hart can get the ball to Metcalf or Mel Gray. But the Vikings are tough and reliable and playoff oriented. While St. Louis' Don Coryell probably deserves to be Coach of the Year for proving that a college guy can do the job quickly, the Vikings are rested and ready from napping through an easy division. In a game of word association Minnesota usually suggests sleep, but not when Fran Tarkenton is throwing to John Gilliam.
In the other game in the National Conference, Los Angeles vs. Washington, there are great mysteries. The Redskins are partly old, partly crippled and have no running backs. The Rams have the talented but unpredictable Jimmy Harris at quarterback and questionable outside speed. The two teams played a rather meaningless game against each other recently and the Redskins won, but even Bill Kilmer said, "The Ram defense wasn't there."
Carroll Rosenbloom, the Ram owner, says, "This team is good enough to win the Super Bowl. It has togetherness."
And George Allen, Washington's coach, says of the Redskins, "I've never been prouder of any team," a typically startling quote from Allen, having to do with the fact that Washington once again has overcome age and injury.
For whatever it means, three of the four National playoff teams—L.A., Minnesota and Washington—played most of their games on God's grass, two of them have Super Bowl coaches in Bud Grant and George Allen, and the same two have experienced quarterbacks in Fran Tarkenton and the combination of Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen, Sonny being the guy who got the Redskins untracked when he came in and whipped Miami early in the season.
For all of this, one has to think that St. Louis' chances of plodding through two playoff games to New Orleans are better than those of the other newcomer, Buffalo. There is one big reason: the American Conference, if you judge it by owners, coaches, quarterbacks and overall playing talent, is still the stronger of the two. And Buffalo, as thrilling a team as it is with O. J. Simpson, Joe Ferguson and such receivers as Ahmad Rashad and J. D. Hill, must go up against the most physical of all teams, Pittsburgh. Then, if the Bills were to win, they would have to meet the Oakland- Miami winner.
True, Buffalo beat Oakland in what was one of the first and perhaps best games of the whole season, and lost twice to Miami in games it could easily have won, but experience counts tremendously in the playoffs. Buffalo looks good enough to beat Pittsburgh if things go well for Ferguson, the Steelers being the only team to reach the playoffs without a quarterback, but the Bills do not look steady enough to do that and then handle either Oakland or Miami.
All of which means that the real Super Bowl will be played in the mud of Oakland this Saturday when the Raiders greet the Dolphins. Oakland might well have had a perfect season had it not been for the last-second loss to the Bills and an emotional letdown against Denver, and it ought to be noted that Miami, at times overconfident, at times injured and at times bored, nevertheless lost its three games to fairly competent throwers, Sonny Jurgensen, Jim Plunkett and Joe Namath.