Astonishing everyone who has been asleep for a month, the NFL's two big games Sunday will involve three of the four teams from the AFL's old Western Division that were not considered preseason Super Bowl favorites.

The Game of the Week looks like it could be San Diego (4-0) at Denver (3-1). Or perchance Oakland (3-0) at Buffalo (2-2).

Under new quarterback Drew Bledsoe, the Bills have been gaining new respect this year. This week they will have to contend with the lively Raider air force people, who, again in Week 4, threw the ball twice as often as they ran it. That (plus three special-team or defensive-team touchdowns) overwhelmed Tennessee by a phenomenal margin, 52-25. In Raider quarterback Rich Gannon's first start after launching 64 passes at Pittsburgh—where he completed an NFL-record 43 to stun the Steelers, 30-17—he completed 29 of 39 in another stunner. Young Jerry Rice, who caught 11 for 94 at Pittsburgh, caught seven for 144 and one of Gannon's four touchdown passes in the Tennessee game. Gannon's age is 37, Rice's 39 going on 40. You can play catch forever.

___


Are Chargers Neanderthals?

ALL FOUR OF Los Angeles' favorite pro clubs—the Raiders, Rams, Cowboys and Chargers—were on network television Sunday, when few viewers were surprised that three of them won. More surprising, one winner was San Diego, which upset Super Bowl-champion New England, 21-14. More surprising yet, the Charger way was the opposite of Oakland's. The Chargers, who lofted only 18 passes all day, ran the ball twice as often as they threw it. Said new Charger Coach Marty Schottenheimer: "I'm going to send San Diego back to the Neanderthal age." If so, the Chargers will never win a Super Bowl.

Beyond all doubt, an NFL running team can run its way into the playoffs—as, in Schottenheimer's 16-year pro career, his charges have done 11 times without ever reaching the Super-Bowl plateau. For it's passing teams that normally win there. The present passing era began with San Francisco's Bill Walsh in the 1980s, when, as Schottenheimer's luck would have it, his pro career began. A big future for San Diego depends on new passer Drew Brees, a good one who's already helped Schottenheimer win this season, and who is having the wonderful luck of breaking in on a running team that can break him in slowly. The question: How soon can Brees take charge?

___


Nothing Like Long Touchdown Runs

LaDAINIAN TOMLINSON, the San Diego runner whose 27 runs kept the ball away from pass-master New England, had the kind of game that inspires comparisons. His achievement was not so much in his 217 rushing yards. It was in the distance of his two touchdown runs: 37 and 58 yards.

The mere scoring of touchdowns is no big deal in pro football. At Jacksonville, running back Stacey Mack got his name in the papers Monday for scoring three times—on runs of 1, 1, and 8 yards. At Seattle, running back Shaun Alexander scored five touchdowns—four on runs of 2, 20, 3 and 14 yards and the fifth on a screen pass. Pro running backs do that sort of thing all the time.

What they don't do regularly is parlay long-distance touchdown carries. The most difficult play in football is the long touchdown run from scrimmage, which is also the most interesting play in football. What makes it so entertaining is the teamwork of the many blockers and the artistry of the ballcarriers as they cut and weave along. Big touchdown passes aren't easy, either, but in a typical fall weekend, there are always more of them than long scoring runs.

Schottenheimer made the parlay of the week when his offensive machine got touchdown runs of 37 and 58 yards in back-to-back quarters as Tomlinson performed brilliantly for the thousands of Eastern viewers who have adopted the Patriots as their own in football—in the same sense that the Yankees are their own in baseball. The Tomlinson day wasn't up to that of the 1924 day when Red Grange, then of Illinois, beat Michigan on touchdown runs of 95, 67, 45 and 56 yards—all in the first 12 minutes—but it was pretty good.

___


Carolina Kicker Lets Peete Down

THE PATRIOTS LOST at San Diego in part because there are some injured pieces in Coach Bill Belichick's finely tuned defense. In part, Adam Vinatieri of the Patriots, who has been kicking on another planet since last year, finally threw a shoe.

By blowing an easy field goal, Vinatieri proved again the validity of what's been true ever since soccer kickers were allowed into this sport, ending a U.S. precedent that still keeps golfers or bowlers or horseshoe pitchers, for instance, from relief roles as baseball pitchers.

The truth: Rely on any placekicker and he'll eventually break your heart.

But most of all, perhaps, the Patriots lost because quarterback Tom Brady, like San Diego's man Brees, is a young and inexperienced passer.