A strange thing about this season's National Football League playoffs is that some of the teams that have been eliminated are at least as good as the four that are in contention.
They're all reasonably close. The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers proved it in the regular season. And, after a 14-14 half last week, the Indianapolis Colts began the second half with a 71-yard drive that made them look like the old Baltimore Colts until the Cleveland Browns discovered that the quarterback was Jack Trudeau, not Johnny Unitas.
The Colts are coming on; and in Houston, the Oilers are nearly there. The Oilers have put together the kind of team that the New York Giants keep saying they want--a group with a power backfield and a 300-pound Pro Bowl-caliber line.
At Mile High Stadium last Sunday, nobody expected such a team to begin with a trick play on its goal line. The long lateral from quarterback Warren Moon to Mike Rozier, who dropped it, turned the game around before it started.
But the Oilers value run-'n'-shoot football. Their offensive coordinator, June Jones, coached that offense in the United States Football League, and this play was out of that bag.
It was a safe enough play. Rozier is a good receiver, and there were more blockers than tacklers in front of him. The object was to get the Oilers off the goal line. Despite Houston's weight advantage, that would have been tough to do with conventional plays so early in the game against Denver's emotional, well-coached team in the noisy Mile High.
It didn't happen the way they had planned it, so the Oilers are gone. But they'll be back. What they needed most this time was playoff experience.
They have been making hay with Coach Jerry Glanville. In his second full season, Glanville turned the American Football Conference's worst team into a playoff entry. The Oilers are a pretty good longshot bet to meet San Francisco in next season's Super Bowl.
Responding this week to criticism of his play-calling, he said: "I'll let the media call the first play of each quarter."
Otherwise, Ditka has some strengths that tend to nullify whatever weaknesses have surfaced in his coaching. For one thing, he seems to be a capable leader.
"The Bears are always motivated," a Chicago beat writer, Don Pierson, said this season. "They've been ready for every game they've ever played under Ditka."
This may be the most important function of a coach.
Second, Ditka makes good moves on offense. Even Jim McMahon listens to him.
But the Bears have lost the edge that made their Super Bowl team what it was--a threat to all opposing offensive coaches.
Against good teams, the Bears' defense, under Ditka and his handpicked defensive coordinator, Vince Tobin, isn't a factor.
Two season ago, under Buddy Ryan, the Bears destroyed the league with the same defensive players. They didn't do that this season, or even last season against strong offenses.
Fortunately for the Bears, they do have a player who could make them a destructive force next season if he were a player-coach. That is linebacker Mike Singletary, one of the NFL's brightest athletes. But could Ditka work with a player-coach?
Of the four coaches whose teams are playing, Dan Reeves of Denver has appeared the most confident.
"I don't envy (the Cleveland Browns) coming here this year," said Reeves, whose team has the league's best home-field record, 28-4.
"I think our stadium gives us an advantage. I think (visitors) have trouble with the altitude. I thought Houston looked tired at the end of the game."
But the Browns should have one advantage in Sunday's AFC title match. They run the ball more effectively than Denver does.
Brown quarterback Bernie Kosar should get more help from his running backs, Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, than John Elway can expect from his, whoever they are. That might keep Elway off the field.
The Browns are the only sound running team still playing.
The Washington Redskins' ground game has been a disappointment lately. Neither George Rogers nor Kelvin Bryant has been much help. The best back, at this point, is rookie Timmy Smith.
At Minnesota, Darrin Nelson gives the Vikings big-play ability, but, at 183 pounds, he can't carry the load.
In playoff games, running backs aren't the force that passers can be. Passers and defensive players, not running backs, win most Super Bowls. But running helps.