When it comes to forecasting the National Football League playoffs beginning this weekend, most so-called experts would just as soon pass - which isn't surprising in view of how the majority of their regular season predictions turned out.
It's probably safe to say, in fact, that in terms of both pleasant surprises by unsung teams and staggering disappointments by alleged powerhouses, the 1981 campaign stood in a class by itself.
Two things almost all of the prognosticators agreed on, for instance, were that Cincinnati would finish last in its division and San Francisco would be battling to escape the cellar in its group. So what happened? The Bengals not only finished first, but posted a 12-4 record to top all other teams in the entire American Conference, while the 49ers went 13-3 for the best record in the whole league.
When you go back and read the various preseason predictions you also find the virtually unanimous belief that New York was in for another long autumn, with both the Jets and Giants consigned to their usual finishes at or near the bottom of their respective divisions. So of course the Jets became the league's glamour team over the last half of the season, storming into the playoffs on a high emotional peak by winning seven of their last eight games. And the Giants, while not causing quite that much commotion, staged a strong finish of their own , climaxed by an overtime victory over the Dallas Cowboys, to earn their first playoff appearance in 18 years.
One can't leave the subject of surprises without also mentioning the Miami Dolphins, who were picked anywhere from the middle of the pack to last in the supposedly rugged AFC East Division (one forecaster actually predicted an 0-16 record for them!), but who finished on top with an 11-4-1 tally.
Finally there was the turnaround of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who rose from last place a year ago to win the NFC Central title.
Then there was the other side of the coin: the big teams of years past that didn't make it this time. This list starts, of course, with the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders, who plummeted all the way to next-to-last in their divison with a 7-9 record. Even more surprising was the complete collapse of the Cleveland Browns, who fell from the championship of the rugged AFC Central Division to the cellar with a 5-11 mark. And who could have forecast such other failures as the Houston Oilers and Los Angeles Rams (6-10 each); the Atlanta Falcons (7-9); the New England Patriots (an unbelievable 2-14 for a team many thought would be right in the thick of things); or the once-mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, whose 8-8 record not only left them out of the playoffs for the second straight year but marked their first nonwinning season in a decade?
That's far more than the usual quota of surprises, but even in this topsy-turvy season some things went according to form. Dallas (12-4) had the big year most everyone anticipated; San Diego also won its division as expected; and Buffalo and Philadelphia made the playoffs once again, though as wild card teams this time rather than division champions.
So now the fun begins as the 10 survivors battle it out over the next three weeks for the right to square off in Super Bowl XVI on Jan. 24 in the Silverdome at Pontiac, Mich. The six division winners - Miami, Cincinnati, San Diego, Dallas, Tampa Bay, and San Francisco - get the first week off, while the wild card teams go head-to-head Sunday in a pair of preliminary battles that may well prove just as interesting and meaningful as the alleged main events coming up later. That was certainly true a year ago, for instance, when Oakland knocked off Houston in the opening round and went on to become the first wild card team ever to win the whole ball of wax.
This year's preliminary battles again feature some top teams, including the Philadelpia powerhouse that reached the Super Bowl last January but got relegated to wild card status when it lost its division race to Dallas this season. They also provide an added attraction in that, for the first time ever, both matchups involve teams from the same divisions - with the Eagles playing host to their longtime traditional rivals, the New York Giants, while Buffalo makes the familiar trip to Shea Stadium to take on the Jets.
Over the years, Eagles-Giants games have almost always been ''wars'' even when nothing more than local pride was at stake - and in a playoff setting one can certainly expect more of the same. Beating Ron Jaworski, Harold Carmichael, Wilbert Montgomery & Co. in Veterans Stadium in such a situation looks like a pretty tall order - especially for a team that just made it to the playoffs and is almost totally lacking in postseason experience.
The Giants feel they have a chance, though, and they can point to the fact that the teams did split their two regular season meetings, and that, ironically enough, each club won on the road. Also, New York seemed to be getting better near the end of the campaign while Philadelphia hit a late-season slump in which it lost four straight games. The Eagles came alive in their finale, though, crushing the St. Louis Cardinals 38-0 in an impressive tuneup for the playoffs.
The Jets-Bills regular season series followed more normal lines, with each team winning handily on its home field. Both games came in the first half of the season, however, and a lot has happened since then - especially in the case of the Jets.
Coach Walt Michaels's club, after a 3-4-1 first half, caught fire through November and December to create an emotional atmosphere among players, coaches, and fans that at times seems capable of carrying the club to almost any heights. Playing in the nation's media capital hasn't hurt in the glamour department either, heaping extra attention on offensive stars like quarterback Richard Todd and receivers Wesley Walker and Lam Jones, and producing fancy nicknames like ''The New York Sack Exchange'' for the pass rush led by Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau that specializes in harassing opposing signal callers.
But the Bills, with veteran Joe Ferguson directing a balanced attack that also features the strong running of Joe Cribbs, are probably just about equal to the Jets in overall strength - if not in publicity - and it should therefore be another interesting contest.
Things get even tougher, of course, in the conference semifinals of Jan. 2 and 3, when the division champions swing into action. Picking an eventual Super Bowl team - or even the winner of any individual game - is risky business, but certain facts seem pretty obvious.
The teams which proved themselves best over the long season - San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Dallas - certainly must be considered among the favorites. Outstanding veteran quarterbacks who have demonstrated their ability over a period of time - such as Ken Anderson of the Bengals, Dan Fouts of San Diego, and Danny White of Dallas - also mean a lot. Teams with top running threats and/or all-purpose backs such as Tony Dorsett of Dallas, Chuck Muncie of San Diego, Cribbs, and Montgomery get a plus as well. Coaching means a lot in playoff games, so those with a lot of previous success such as Tom Landry of Dallas and Don Shula of Miami have an edge. And finally, experience is always such a big factor in these contests that one can't help noting the fact that only two of the 10 teams involved this year - Dallas and Philadelphia - have reached the Super Bowl in any season recent enough to matter very much in terms of current personnel (Miami's last appearance was in 1974, while the Jets' lone time there was in 1969).
For whatever it is worth (which may well be nothing at all), the only team mentioned in all five categories above happens to be Dallas