Back in the Middle Ages, when the Miami Dolphins could still field eleven men on defense and Buddy Ryan was fighting in the Golden Gloves, I wrote in this space that the Dolphins would beat the San Francisco 49ers in this year's Super Bowl.

Sure, and the Germans will win World War II. The airplane is a passing fancy. We'll all wear red coats when George III beats the spread against George Washington. Billie Holiday can't sing.

The reason they play the entire National Football League schedule is that you never know what will happen--as Dan Marino, Vance Johnson and the New Orleans Saints can tell you. While most of the league's overworked placekickers have taken their cleats and gone home for the year, the real dancing is about to begin amid a cloud of mystery: The annual feat of higher mathematics that gave us last weekend's wild-card teams (including your Denver Broncos) has now produced four survivors (Chiefs, Packers, Giants and Raiders), while Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys used the week off to nurse the shoulder he injured in heroic duty against the Giants, and Battlin' Buddy, who doubles these days as defensive coordinator of the bickering Houston Oilers, got in some extra work on the speed bag for his rematch with fellow Oiler coach Kevin Gilbride.

Meanwhile, the two dirtiest words in pro football are still "Buffalo Bills"--especially at NBC, where everyone's worried sick that the three-time losers will once again be just good enough to knock off the other midgets in the American Farce Conference before getting blown off the field in Atlanta by the NFC champs. On January 30 in Chicago, NBC fears, the fans will decide to fix paving contracts instead of turning on their television sets. Blissed-out Coloradans will be lolling in sunny lift lines. Buddy Ryan will probably slip down to his corner saloon and blindside the bartender.

Who's gonna beat 'em? The Bills, that is. Which AFC nonentity is good enough to take out the conference's perennial embarrassment?

No one, we say.
Every January these Bills come due, squeak by in the playoffs and pack their bags for destiny. And every January they go home with a lot of bruises instead of the Super Bowl trophy. Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith must be getting so tired of this by now that they're thinking of moving to Minneapolis, or to, uh, Denver--where the locals are well versed in blowing the big game and can offer comfort for the troubled heart. On the other hand, the Bills clearly have the souls of slot machine junkies: Just one more pull on the handle and it'll come up all sevens. Pass that cup of silver dollars, willya?

The pretenders in this year's dash for second place include the Kansas City Chiefs, whose 27-24 playoff win Saturday against those late-season laggards the Pittsburgh Steelers was but a prelude to a nice plate of ribs at Arthur Bryant's. The old aware one, Joe Montana, knows exactly what the big game feels like--what winning it feels like, too--but he's actually shown signs of mortality lately, and his supporting cast will not be up to the task this time around. Besides, teams that have no running game don't get to the Super Bowl, much less win it, and the Kansas City Royals run a lot better than the Chiefs. Aging Marcus Allen has worn down over the grueling season and could be out of gas.

How about Houston? Don't count on it. While the pundits point to an explosive offense that ranked third in NFL scoring and the Oilers' ten-game season-closing surge as evidence of fresh confidence at the Astrodome, closer scrutiny reveals a couple of holes. For one thing, those ten straight wins included two each against pitiful Cincinnati, leaderless Cleveland and inconsistent Pittsburgh, plus single wins against Seattle, Atlanta and the New York Jets. The Moonies whacked San Francisco December 25, to be sure, but Young and Company had their minds on Christmas.

ÊOne other thing: Houston clearly wants to avenge the worst second-half collapse in NFL playoff history, that awful 41-38 loss January 3, 1993, at--guess where?--Buffalo. But the Bills aren't about to lie down for the indoorsmen from Texas: They have something to prove, too, don't you think?

The Raiders? Please. Wait till those Bronco-busting speedballs hit the home ice at Rich Stadium Sunday.

Live with it. Buffalo. The third time was not a charm--Marv Levy was anything but charmed by 52-17--and the fourth time won't be either. But Buffalo will get there: The Bills are not the offensive juggernaut they once were (despite season-ending scoring festivals against crippled Miami, the Jets and Indianapolis), but Kelly and Company are good enough, and the Buffalo defense is still one of the league's best, anchored by Bruce Smith, Jeff Wright and Darryl Talley. It was "D" that got Buffalo to 12-4 in the regular season--tied with Houston and Dallas for the league's best record--but there's another reason, too.

Aside from the stubborn Show 'Em factor and a playoff-tough mentality--the Bills have been through more photo days than Madonna--there's also the matter of the weather. Even penguins and polar bears avoid Buffalo in January, and thin-skinned visitors to howling Rich Stadium like it a lot less: It may not be fair, but until the Green Bay Packers are transferred to the AFC, the leading clubs of the AFC (such as they are) will feel like Marla running into Ivana in the elevator every time the playoff road takes them to Buffalo.

So, even as NBC and the fans cringe, the Bills are baaaaaaack. Meanwhile, let us not haggle here over swings of fortune in the NFC, except to say this: San Francisco 49ers 37, Buffalo Bills 20 in SB XXVIII.

You never know, of course. While you're not looking, Edsels might become a big hit in Tokyo. Fidel Castro could open a savings account at Chase Manhattan. And Buddy Ryan may win the heavyweight title from, say, Roseanne Barr. Just ask Dan Marino.

Handicapping thoroughbreds is already a tough game without trying it in the dark.

That's what 23 brave souls found themselves faced with for an hour or so last Wednesday. This just in: They rose to the challenge without a squawk.

"No signal," our acquaintance Bobby Y. said without removing his broad, worried face from the Daily Racing Form. Indeed. At downtown's Maxfield and Friends, an off-track gambling hell disguised as a bar, the wizards of modern satellite technology had failed. The signal from Gulfstream Park near Miami had been mysteriously lost, so there was no picture. You could see the odds display, you could even bet on the races. But you couldn't see the track or the horses or the riders or the weather or the palm trees.

The first race was seven minutes away, and you couldn't see anything but Joan Rivers and Jackie Mason, gabbing away on a few of Maxfield's 3,500 or so TV sets. Come to think of it, little Jackie could probably land a couple of mounts if he'd just lose forty or fifty pounds.

"Whaddya like in the Stevie Wonder Stakes?" Bobby Y. asked without smiling. Superstitious punters were already searching programs in vain for a horse called Twilight Zone or Blind Luck or Shoot in the Dark. Most of them played Royal Invite, the 4-5 favorite.

Apparently, Royal Invite ran third--which we learned only when the results were silently posted ten minutes later on the monitors. Bobby Y., a loser in the first race, was undaunted. He turned to the second.

"In the Helen Keller Handicap," he said, glancing up at a blank screen, "I like Hopespringsalways." Jackie Mason was now talking about ethnic jokes. Unless the people at Gulfstream were lying to us, Hopespringsalways finished second. We saw none of it.

In the third race (The George Shearing), Bobby Y. selected a horse named Departing Cloud and--no kidding--a full view of Gulfstream Park suddenly sprang to TV life a split second after his announcement.

"Let's hook him up with Image of Prospect," I suggested.
"Whaddya, nuts?" Bobby Y. explained.
Departing Cloud ran sixth in a field of eight, banishing symbolism. Image of Prospect may be running still. Despite the restoration of TV imagery live from Gulfstream, he never got into the picture.


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