Whether the undefeated Chicago Bears make it to the Super Bowl or not, they have done the deadly serious National Football League a big favor. How? By placing a feather under the feet of NFL fans. The source of all the good-natured laughter is a wide-body rookie nicknamed the ``Refrigerator.'' Millions of spectators and viewers aren't really laughing so much at as with William Perry, as they share in the sense of delight over his rather incongruous assignment. Running back, after all, is not normally where 325-lb. defensive linemen play.
But given the team's strong pass rush and the fact that Perry only sees spot duty at his natural position, the Fridge was plugged into the team's goal-line offense several weeks ago, primarily as a blocking back alongside the superlative runner Walter Payton.
Ever since clearing a path for Payton and scoring one touchdown himself in a Monday night game, the Refrigerator has been the talk of the league, an overnight folk hero.
Coach Mike Ditka, who likes to employ interesting strategic wrinkles, says he plans to keep using his one-man Monster of the Midway until someone can stop him. The fans love it.
But if Fridge-mania has pumped new fun into the game, the Bears themselves have continued to deflate the opposition. Chicago finished the first half of the season with the league's only 8-0 record and now owns a nice three-game cushion in the National Conference Central over the Detroit Lions.
Barring a collapse, Chicago should breeze into the playoffs. The schedule, however, puts more than enough roadblocks in the way of a perfect regular season, last accomplished by Miami in 1972. A pair of games remain with the Lions, plus there are road dates with Dallas, Miami, and the New York Jets, all of which should be fighting for playoff berths.
As Joe Walton, coach of the Jets, explained recently, the season's first eight games really determine who is in a position to challenge the rest of the way. The next four games, he said, are critical in identifying the true contenders. The final four games establish the playoff teams.
On that basis, about the only franchises already out of it are Atlanta and Buffalo, both 1-7, and winless Tampa Bay. Everybody else in the 28-team league is at least 3-5 or better.
Watched perhaps most warily by opponents will be San Francisco and Miami, last season's Super Bowl teams. Both clubs were upset on the opening day of the season and have appeared vulnerable ever since.
The defending champion 49ers, in fact, needed to beat the previously undefeated Los Angeles Rams last week just to reach .500. They did so, and impressively too. The defense held Eric Dickerson to 61 yards rushing, and the offense was moved efficiently by quarterback Joe Montana, whose passing touch returned.
Miami's problems center around a suspect, injury-riddled defense that has contributed to the team's current slump. The Dolphins have lost two of their last three games and barely beaten the Buccaneers, who scored 38 points, in the other. Sunday's game against the New England Patriots, therefore, could be pivotal.
Though a team that often comes unglued as the season progresses, the Patriots appear ready to reverse that pattern.
Like the Patriots, the division-leading Jets know the pitfalls that can await a team during the season's second half. Last year they started off 6-2, then went on a six-game losing streak. But they too claim greater stability this time around, and expect to sidestep the banana peels.
Out West, the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Raiders have checked in with the conference's other 6-2 records. Their battle for superiority may boil down to head-to-head games on Nov. 24 and Dec. 8.
Over in the NFC, all eyes are on the Lions now that they've notched victories over three established powers, Dallas, Miami, and San Francisco. The Redskins, meanwhile, look to be a power in decline.