As the end nears, the NFL has turned into the NFL—the National Arithmetic League—and the American public is holding its breath as Commissioner Pete Einstein hunkers over his calculators, trying to figure out whether Tampa Bay's first victory in history last Sunday will qualify the Buccaneers for a wildcard spot when the playoffs begin on Christmas Eve. As the regular season adds, subtracts and multiplies itself to a halt, the only five outfits definitely headed for the Super Bowl eliminations without any arguments are the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, Oakland Raiders and that traditional rival of the fans, the hard-hitting IBM Bay Computers.
Well, it figures. A season that can produce a Denver with a 12-1 record can produce almost anything, so the next-to-last weekend of the regular grind served up a veritable buffet of insanity. Forget Tampa Bay dislodging Hank Stram's toupee in New Orleans, 33-14. That didn't affect anything except certain people's job security. Of far more interest were Cincinnati's Arctic Circle upset of Pittsburgh, Baltimore's buffoon-style loss to Detroit, the final chapter in the collapse of St. Louis at the feet of Washington and New England's heroic dismantling of Miami's Bob Griese, which, as it turns out, will probably mean nothing to the Patriots.
Math became important in the close divisional races. In the AFC Central, for instance, the Bengals needed to beat the Steelers—and beat them by more than six points. The rule that applied here involved the point differential in their head-to-head meetings. What it provided was a situation in which Pittsburgh could win the formula-off by intentionally playing for a loss and kicking a field goal to narrow Cincinnati's margin of victory instead of going for a touchdown that would win the game. It never came to that, fortunately, not after Franco Harris lived up to his role as the NFL's second-best designated fumbler (no one can compare with St. Louis' Terry Metcalf in this regard), and Cincinnati out-iceskated the Steelers 17-10. That margin of victory gave the Bengals a one-point edge over the Steelers, who won the previous game between the two by six points, and will put Cincinnati in the playoffs if it defeats Houston in its last game.
The arithmetic is even more fascinating in the AFC East. After the Patriots stung the Dolphins 14-10, and the once-impressive Colts had found an intriguing way to lose to the Lions 13-10, their third defeat in 15 days after losing only once in 10 weeks, the situation was this: if Baltimore can somehow regroup and rediscover Bert Jones' arm and win its final game over New England, it will stagger into the playoffs. But if the Patriots win that game, while Miami does the expected by tromping on Buffalo, the Dolphins will be in the playoffs. Miami would then have a better record than New England within the division, although both clubs would finish 10-4 overall.
And how would Baltimore edge Miami for a playoff berth if they were to conclude the proceedings with identical 10—4s? Oh, that's easy. The Colts outscored the Dolphins in their two games, right? Wrong. Well, they did, but it doesn't matter. O.K., Baltimore would have a better record in the division, right? Wrong. Their records would be the same. So what then? It's the record in the conference, silly. Miami would have lost four games to AFC teams, and Baltimore would have lost only three***. So the nitwit Baltimore punt that Detroit's Leonard Thompson blocked Sunday for the winning touchdown in the last nine seconds really will have no bearing whatsoever.
On the other hand, if the Colts lose to the Patriots and miss the playoffs, Baltimore Coach Ted Marchibroda will have a long winter to wonder why he did not give up a safety to the Lions. What the Colts really did in losing, aside from proving that Jones is in a slump, was keep Miami alive. The Dolphins were absolute goners after the Patriots sacked Griese six times and won that thriller.
But perhaps all of this will be clearer if it's discussed by divisions. So...NFC EAST—Early in the season the Super Bowl, according to most Texans, was all set. It would be Dallas vs. Oakland and the final score would be 35-33, one way or another. This was when the Cowboys were romping to an 8-0 record and their front four were leading the league in ambulance calls. Four of the first seven quarterbacks the Cowboys faced did not finish the game, and their front four became known as "Too Tall, Too Mean, Too Strong and Too Jethro." That was for Too Tall Jones, Harvey Martin, Randy White and Jethro Pugh.
Then something happened. When the record read 8�-0—they were leading St. Louis 14-3 at halftime—the Cowboys suddenly got bored with the division, and Roger Staubach's aches and pains caught up with him. Dallas lost to the Cardinals, then to a highly emotional Pittsburgh team. By then, however, Tony Dorsett was a starter. The Cowboys got it back together, as Dorsett aimed at a 1,000-yard rookie rushing season, and they clinched their ninth division title in the past 12 years and also the home-field advantage for "the second season."
For all of this, it is still hard to tell how good Dallas is. The Cowboys have a grand mixture of youth and experience, and plenty of talent, but one cannot forget that they play in a division in which one contender, Washington, lost twice to the New York Giants, and another, St. Louis, had days when its players looked either like the unhappiest group in captivity or the holders of numbered Swiss bank accounts. There is still a chance that whiskey-faced old Billy Kilmer, who resurfaced to quarterback Washington past St. Louis 26-20 last Saturday, could lug the Redskins into the playoffs as the NFC wild-card team with a 9-5 record, but only if several bizarre things happen this weekend. Like Washington upsetting the Rams. Or Minnesota and Chicago suffering combined heart failure.
But overall, the summing up of the NFC East is that Dallas did what was expected—and St. Louis did not. Indeed, if there was a National Conference team that seemed to have the capability of the Cowboys and Rams, it was the Jim Hart-Terry Metcalf- Mel Gray-Conrad Dobler Cardinals. One of the season's mysteries is what happened to them.