W. C. Fields would find it hard to knock Philadelphia these days. After 100 years of trying, the Phillies reign as kings of baseball, and now the Eagles, with a 7-1 record, are doing a number on the National Football League.
Many fans are already familiar with the rebuilding job Coach Dick Vermeil's done. Still, not many people really thought the Eagles would be brandishing the NFL's best record midway through the 16-week campaign.
To some degree, the Eagles have been fattening up on the league's weaklings, a luxury they enjoy as members of the watered-down National Football Conference. But the fact remains, nobody else -- not San Diego, Dallas, Los Angeles, Houston , or even Pittsburgh -- can boast of having notched seven victories.
This is no overnight success story. Philadelphia entered the season with its playoff credentials in order, having made post-season appearances each of the past two years.
If the Eagles have remained somewhat suspect, it's because a lack of depth has hurt them in the past. Yet proof that adequate reserves are surfacing came in last Sunday's victory over Chicago, when reserve quarterback Joe Pisarcik and running back Lou Giammona performed admirably after pressed into service.
Just as gratifying may the play of the defense, which Vermeil considers the best in the league. His opinion, incidentally, is supported by recent NFL statistics.
Defense, of course, used to be Pittsburgh's forte. But while the Eagles are soaring at one end of Pennsylvania, the Super Bowl champions are sputtering at the other, relinquishing 45 points in a recent loss to Oakland.
The Steelers are 4-4 at this point, in part because such mainstays as Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, and Franco Harris have been injured and out of action at one time or another. As deep as the Steelers are, no team can afford to lose so many front-line players.What rankles Coach Chuck Noll, though, is the high number of turnovers and defensive breakdon his club has committed.
By losing their last three games, the Steelers have allowed Houston and Cleveland (with 5-3 records) to climb ahead of them in the AFC East.
In an effort to nail down its first-ever division title, Houston acquired all-pro tight end Dave Casper from Oakland in a mid-season trade that has baffled the experts. The Oilers already have two capable players at that position in Mike Barber and Rich Caster, and the addition of Casper creates problems in providing everyone with adequate playing time. Perhaps the best incentive for giving up several high draft choices was the chance it gave Houston to reunite quarterback Ken Stabler with a favorite target from his Oakland playing days.
Speculation about this deal is sure to continue, but Earl Campbell's condition will remain the foremost topic of discussion among Oiler fans. Houston struggles when the game's premier runner is either out of action are hampered by injury, as he was last month.
Earl's back at full strength now and moving up fast on Detroit rookie Billy Sims in the league rushing race. With a career-high 203 yards against Cincinnati, he jumped from eighth to first on the AFC rushing chart and to within 49 yards of catching Sims (856 yards) for the overall lead.
Detroit, Buffalo, and San Francisco -- all early-season surprises -- have cooled off. The Lions, however, have been able to lose three of their last four games and still retain undisputed possession of first place in the NFC Central with a 5-3 record.Buffalo, meanwhile, is running neck-and-neck with New England in the AFC East after recovering from two losses to beat the Patriots last Sunday.
The defeat stalled New England (6-2), which had looked impressive during a run of five victories that was heralded as the dawn of the new Patriots -- a fiery club with an ability to win the big game.
New England hasn't been the only playoff-caliber team halted in its tracks.
The Rams (5-3) had a golden opportunity to open up some distance on Atlanta, but lost a head-to-head confrontation against the Falcons that left these NFC West rivals in a first- place tie. Similarly, San diego was headed off by Dallas, which mounted a strong second half comeback to win last Sunday night's battle of playoff contenders.
The loss prevented the Chargers (5-3) from moving ahead of the pesty Oakland Raiders in the AFC West. Oakland has been playing surprisingly well with Jim Plunkett at quarter- back. Thought by some to be on the way out as an NFL signal caller, the former Heisman Trophy winner has stepped in for injured starter, Dan Pastorini, and filled the air with touchdown passes.
Leading the circuit's roster of disappointing teams is New Orleans, which has not won a game in getting off to its worst start ever. The New York Jets aren't far behind, their 2-6 record an embarrassment for a franchise with supposedly very realistic playoff hopes.
Tampa Bay and Denver, two teams that made the playoffs a year ago, haven't looked the part this season. The Buccaneers are now 3-4-1, the Broncos 4-4.