NFC WEST—Welcome to the Valium Division. The only suspense was how long it would take Pat Haden to become the Los Angeles quarterback. It took four weeks. It was only after Haden replaced Joe Namath and began to pump some excitement into things that the Rams took off. The Rams usually win this division by mid-October, but it took a little longer this time, because Atlanta played like defensive fools for about eight weeks. Otherwise, it was a case of the Rams playing the same old schedule—New Orleans 10 times and Tampa four, or so it seemed—and muddling through. L.A. is physical, though, and if Chuck Knox ever puts more than six plays in the Rams' repertoire, they can make the Super Bowl. Haden might take them there, anyway. He has that charmed quality.
NFC CENTRAL—The only thing interesting about this division has been Walter Payton and his quest to leap over more airport furniture than O.J. Simpson. But, unbelievably, it looks very much as if two of its teams will make the playoffs—Minnesota without Fran Tarkenton and Chicago with a 47-0 loss to Houston on its record. If the Vikings and Bears finish up with 9-5 records, Minnesota will be the division winner and the Bears will edge out the Redskins as the wild card, even if Washington performs that miracle over the Rams. Minnesota would win the division because it outscored the Bears 29-26 as they split their head-to-head battles. And Chicago would nip the Redskins by virtue of having lost fewer games within their division. Thus, Washington's two losses to the Giants would be lethal.
As for the NFC playoff matchups, Dallas seems destined to host the wild card team—let's say Chicago for fun—and Los Angeles most likely will entertain the home folk with Minnesota.
AFC EAST—It will be a cruel thing for sure if the Dolphins get left out after the coaching job Don Shula has done. Bob Griese has had a splendid year in his eyeglasses, and if a pass rusher named A.J. Duhe is not the Defensive Rookie of the Year, there is no such award. Unlike the Patriots and Colts, the Dolphins have never quit. On occasion, the Patriots have been devastating, but they have never overcome their early problems, which all started with an agent named Howard Slusher and two of his clients, offensive linemen John Hannah and Leon Gray, who walked off their jobs for a few weeks. Without them, the Patriots started off 1 and 2. In their last few games New England has sacked everyone but Commissioner Pete Rozelle, employing the kind of rugged defense that last Sunday leveled Miami in what New England felt was a "must" game. The Patriots had no idea that under certain circumstances closing victories over the Dolphins and Colts would do them no good.
Crazily enough, one is left with the notion that if Baltimore slips into the playoffs after so shabby a second half of the season—three straight losses to Denver, Miami and Detroit down the stretch—the two best teams in the division will be watching the playoffs on TV.
AFC CENTRAL—For a time it appeared that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Houston and Cleveland would all wind up with 7-7 records, and it would take all of the graduate students at MIT to determine the winner. There were days when the Steelers reminded everybody of themselves, but the Bengals never did. If, in fact, the Bengals beat the Oilers to make the playoffs, after so deplorable a season, they will mainly have the Steelers to thank.
AFC WEST—This will be remembered as the year Denver created more excitement in Colorado than the average street corner in Aspen. Denver? Craig Morton? Red Miller? No thinking person is yet willing to accept it. Well, a fairly ornery defense was already there, and so were some speed and big play machinery. All that was needed was confidence, a new attitude. To Miller, the new coach, must go the bulk of the credit, while saving a bit for Morton. All the Broncos have done is whip up on more teams with winning records—seven—than any other club. Sometimes Morton did it with a pass, and sometimes the Broncos' Orange Crush defense did it, a defense that produced a corner linebacker named Tom Jackson, who has slowly earned an underground NFL reputation as being the best there is.
Finally, what were the odds at the beginning of the season on Oakland's needing a wild card to get into the playoffs? The Raiders, like everyone else, probably didn't take Denver seriously until it was too late. One thing about Oakland, though. Last Sunday, when the Raiders had to win to clinch the wild card, Ken Stabler became Ken Stabler again, and they walloped Minnesota 35-13.
Oakland has had just enough moments—beating Pittsburgh and Denver, for example—to look like a team fully capable of defending its Super Bowl championship. The Raiders will have to play all their postseason games on the road, but exactly where is in the hands of an enormous number of mathematicians.
All anybody really knows about the AFC playoffs is that Oakland will be traveling and Denver will be staying home as usual. Only this time the Broncos will be playing a football game.