The National Football League, where winners collapse and favorites fall flat on their faces, usually makes football forecasting as scientific a practice as palmistry. Nevertheless, here's the way they should finish.
In the western division, the Greon Bay Packers look like a sure thing. They combine veterans who have played for championship teams in the past, men such as Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Willie Davis, and Ray Nitschke, with young, ambitious players like Lee Roy Caffey, Marv Fleming, and Dave Robinson. The defense is solid, and Starr's passing complements the running game nicely, but the determing factor should be the admirable combination of unflappable old hands and unbreakable young ones.
Second place should go to last year's division champions, the Baltimore Colts. Though Johnny Unitas and his corps of sly, experienced receivers will have little trouble scoring, the defense, having lost Gino Marchetti and Bill Pellington, has too many mediocrities and talented but untried young men.
The Minnesota Vikings, darlings of Sports Illustrated, will rise no higher than third. Fran Tarkenton, Bill Brown, and Tommy Mason have fooled more sports-writers per pound than any other players in the league. The Vikings lack deep pass receiving threats, and fine defenders such as Carl Eiler and Rip Hawkins play along with nonentities like Bill Jobko and Larry Vargo.
The Detroit Lions will finish fourth, because Milt Plum is an erratic quarter-back and the defensive secondary is being rebuilt. Los Angeles, with a number of good young players such as Bill Munson, Merlin McNeever, Brave Jones, and Merlin Olsen will be tough, but they need one more year of experience, to be gotten in fifth place.
The San Francisco 49'ers, headed for sixth place, are in the process of amassing some good players. They already have George Mira, Ken Willard, Kermit Alexander, and Elbert Kimbrough, but they need a few more good drafts.
The Chicago Bears, with the offensive weaknesses that hampered their league championship team of 1963 have blossomed into full-scale disasters, will continue to learn that an excellent defense is no good unless the offense can hold the ball for more than four down at a time. They'll be last.
The eastern division isn't so easy. The St. Louis Cardinals, led by quarterback Charley Johnson, should win, but they should have won last year too. They have fine receivers such as Bobby Joe Conrad and Sonny Randle, great blocking in the offensive line, and a half-dozen good runners. The defense, with backs such as Abe Woodson, Jerry Stovall, and Pat Fischer, is also good.
I pick the resurgent New York Giants for second, mostly on the strength of their hammering young backs -- Steve Thurlow, Tucker Fredrickson, Ernie Koy, and yes, Yalle Chuck Mercein. The NFL hasn't seen many teams rely on a ground game in a number of years so the Giants should be interesting to watch.
The Cleveland Browns, with their leaky defense starting to give way, will slip to third. Frank Ryan and Jimmy Brown will see to it that the Browns score plenty, but any team in the league could crack the defense.
Dallas is bound for a championship, but not this year. When Jerry Rhome takes over at quarterback in a season or two, then the Cowboys will be ready to go higher than fourth. Washington has superb performers in Sonny Jurgensen, Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor, Paul Krause, and Sam Huff, but the supporting cast will weight them down to fifth.
The Eagles, with fair offensive potential, will ride Norman Snead's good days to some upsets and to sixth place. And the Steelers, old, injury-prone, and totally without glamor, will be as far sunk into last place as they can possibly tunnel.