Thrillers? Playoffs aren't even close


The first clue surfaced about the time injured quarterback Jim Harbaugh, during the pre-game hype, said his team "had a great game plan prepared."

Harbaugh, recall, played collegiately at Michigan, where a balanced attack means running off tackle as often as running straight up the middle.

Yessiree, the Bears were going to open it up against the Giants, throw caution to the wind, go for broke, roll the dice, shoot the works, let it all hang out.

Oh yeah, Chicago ended up throwing more passes than usual, but always when they were completely expected by the Giants: 10-0, 17-3, finish reading the Sunday paper.

One consoling thought. Another game was due up in a while. The captive audience thought ahead to the Bengals at Raiders, or back to Saturday's games: 49ers 28, Redskins 10. Bills 44, Dolphins 34.

A trend was noted. See, brainwashed pro football fans are susceptible to trends, tendencies and all the other Sunday afternoon buzzwords the NFL and its propagandists, the TV networks, flood our way.

In the opening round of the expanded playoffs last week, the game scores were 41-14, 20-7, 16-6 and 17-16. One really competitive game in four, the average margin of victory being 13 points.

HTC With the Giants' 31-3 clubbing of the Bears and the Raiders' 20-10 triumph over the Bengals yesterday, the average margin moved ahead to 16.5 points this weekend.

We make a lot of noise about parity, but is it really so? Or did Pete Rozelle take it with him when the ex-commissioner slipped into retirement?

Even the casual observer knows that, for the most part, the Super Bowl has been a cakewalk, a coronation, a reason for a party with little chance of good fellowship being disrupted by an absorbing game.

(I recall one late January afternoon, probably when the Bears tattooed the Patriots, when the host made a quick run to Erol's and everyone seemed quite content to watch a movie.)

Just six times through the first two dozen Super Bowls has the game been reasonably close (translation, less than a 10-point spread). In six of the last seven years, the margin of victory exceeded 30 points.

Without checking, one might think that an anomaly, a huge departure from the days when Alan Ameche crashed into the Giants' end zone to win the first sudden-death game or Lou Groza's field goal beat the Rams as time ran out.

The fact is, however, the rest of the postseason ritual practiced by the NFL has provided much the same fare since the merger a quarter century ago.

Just twice in the last nine years has the winner in the AFC title game been anything but a foregone conclusion shortly after halftime. Winners have prevailed by an average of 14 points and that's with coaches placing their best plays in mothballs.

It's even worse over in the NFC where just eight times in the last 24 years has a loser come within 10 points of the victor. In back-to-back years, 1984-85-86, shutouts were the order of the day by a combined 64-0 tally. The average margin of victory has been 16 points.

The league decided to add a two-game wild-card weekend in 1978. Again, the play, while often spirited, has not been that close. Over 15 games, NFC winners have outscored the opposition 403-192; their AFC counterparts have enjoyed a 396-227 bulge. Just 11 of the 30 games have been competitive and the victory margins by conference stood at 14 (NFC) and 11 (AFC).

This year, of course, a couple more wild-card teams were added, not because they were needed but because ABC insisted on it if it was going to pay close to a billion dollars to retain "Monday Night Football" for four seasons.

Because of a close game between the Dolphins and the Chiefs and the fact the Bears steadfastly refuse to take part in offensive football, the extra games produced a 13-point spread. No better or worse than division playoffs, conference championships or the Big Kahuna.

In eight games over the last two weekends, winners outscored losers, 217-100. That's fine if we're talking the Denver Nuggets and their version of NBA hoops. But it leaves an empty feeling for fans who expect the championship season to be just that.

One saving grace is at least Mike Ditka and his "great game plan" are no more until next fall.

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