Although it doesn't always happen that the two best teams meet in the National Football League champion-ship game, there's general agreement that this will be the case in Super Bowl XVII in Tampa, Fla. Jan. 22.
That's when the defending champion Washington Redskins take the field against the Los Angeles Raiders, who won it all themselves just two years ago when they were still in Oakland. Here are two physically powerful aggregations who like to control things at the line; who rarely resort to gimmicks; who use their running game to set up the pass; and who probably mix up their man-to-man and zone defenses as well as anybody.
Basically they know each other's tendencies in run-pass situations almost as well as most people know the inside of their bedroom closets. Where the break in this game will come is in how well they read each other's options; how well they react on defense when the opposition suddenly switches to an unbalanced line or uses two tight ends to increase its blocking ability.
It should be a very punishing football game for the participants, and probably a relatively low-scoring one unless the turnovers get out of hand.
On paper, anyway, the Redskins rate an edge in this department. They don't make many mistakes. The Raiders, on the other hand, have had problems all year hanging onto the ball, which doesn't necessarily mean that they will again on Super Bowl Sunday, but which is one factor that influences forecasters.
One player from a losing team who has already appeared in the playoffs against Washington and who didn't want to be identified told me: ''I like Washington because I think at some point in this game the Redskins' defensive line is going to start to get to Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett, who doesn't have a lot of mobility. I don't mean a lot of sacks necessarily, but enough pressure so that Plunkett is going to have to rush things. That's where I think the break will come. Otherwise I see it as an even game.''
When the teams met during the regular season, the Redskins staged a dramatic come-from-behind 37-35 victory at RFK Stadium.However, Raider running back Marcus Allen, who was injured, didn't play that day, so whatever was considered significant about that game at the time should probably be put out with the cat.
If the two teams appear pretty much the same in overall strength and in style of play, however, they are still quite different in their off-field look. Personality-wise, for instance, only the Redskins' John Riggins is bizarre enough to belong with the nails-for-breakfast crew of characters that L.A. owner Al Davis has assembled. Yet when it comes to wanting their quarterbacks to stay within the protective confines of the pocket, Washington Coach Joe Gibbs and LA Coach Tom Flores are in complete agreement. You won't see much scrambling by either Plunkett or the Redskins' Joe Theismann.
Their ground game differs only in the fact that Gibbs likes to run the rugged Riggins between the tackles, where Flores is more apt to send Allen scooting outside. But the object is the same: to loosen up the defense so that the pass receivers can operate more freely.
The team that wins this game, as is usually the case, is going to have to be able to run the ball, at least part of the time. In fact, if it can't run, it isn't going to be able to pass, either.
Looking back to last Sunday, probably the best thing that could have happened to Washington was to have the San Francisco 49ers come back on them in the fourth period after being down 21-0. If the Redskins had started to believe their press clippings by then, the fact that they wound up needing a late field goal to eke out a 24-21 win should have gotten them out from under all those superlatives and back to reality.
San Francisco, which had every right to panic in that kind of situation and didn't, might have done even better if two late-game interference calls hadn't gone against them. It was those pass interference flags, of course, that set up Mark Moseley's 25-yard winning field goal.
Meanwhile, the Raiders were so physical against Seattle, which had beaten them twice during the regular season, that the Seahawks never were able to block properly for running back Curt Warner in a 30-14 loss. Warner, who ordinarily gets his real estate by cutting back against overpursuing defenses, gained only 26 yards. L.A. simply didn't give him any room to maneuver.
The Raiders also held Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg to six pass completions. And unfortunately for the Seahawks, three of those were completed to defenders!
After the Seattle-L.A. game, Davis told reporters: ''The Raiders' approach to winning is different than most teams. We just line up. We don't confuse anyone with our motion or with a lot of different formations. We play a certain style football and we only go after players who can adapt to that style.''
Asked to describe what he meant, Davis replied: ''You know as well as I do - attack on offense, attack on defense!''