The safest bet in sports today is that the champion Chicago Bears will make the playoffs again.
In the National Football League's 67th season, which begins this weekend, quarterback Jim McMahon will be leading the Bears down a strange road against one overmatched opponent after another in the softest schedule they have had in years.
Even the New Orleans Saints might make the playoffs with Chicago's schedule.
The Saints this year are being asked to play the Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers, among others.
In contrast, the Bears will play only two teams that won more than half the time last year, the Rams and the Dallas Cowboys.
How they got such a schedule is another matter. But they've got it, and so their real season won't begin until early 1987, when, in the playoffs, the odds are that one of the Bears' opponents will be a wild-card team instead of a division champion.
For Mike Ditka, the Bear coach, it has the look of a long, beautiful season.
The Super Bowl is scheduled for the Rose Bowl this time, on Jan. 25, and the Bears are a consensus favorite to win their second straight NFL title.
It's true that no champion has repeated in the 1980s, but the explanation for that probably is that none had a schedule like Ditka's.
All told, there are three persuasive reasons to expect the Bears in Pasadena:
--They're getting a pass into the playoffs. The question in the NFC Central isn't whether the four other teams can challenge Chicago but whether any of them can break .500.
--The Bears figure to be home again for the playoffs, and, in blustery Chicago, they may not even be scored on there again.
--They will have all season to adjust to their new defense. If it turns out to be less effective than Buddy Ryan's last year, well, they can always return to Ryan's. They have the same players.
National Conference clubs have won four of the last five Super Bowl games. Besides the Bears, the Redskins won one, the 49ers two. And again this year, the 49ers are probably the top team in the league if Chicago isn't.
If the 49ers could swap schedules and divisions with Chicago, the 49ers would win the NFC championship going away, for they are basically a better team than the Bears.
Counting playoffs, Chicago had an 18-1 record last season. The year before, San Francisco was 18-1. No other teams have played that kind of football in modern times.
Indeed, coaches Bill Walsh of the 49ers and Tom Flores of the Raiders are the only ones who have coached two Super Bowl winners in the 1980s.
Otherwise this season, the NFC's question-mark teams are those with the new coaches--any one of whom, conceivably, could emerge as a giant, as two formerly inconspicuous assistants did in the 1960s. These were Vince Lombardi and Don Shula.
Four of the NFL's five coaching changes were made in the National Conference--underscoring that the NFC, though stronger at the top, hasn't recently been as well balanced as the AFC.
Of the new ones, Ryan, who left Chicago for Philadelphia, is the most celebrated and enigmatic.
"I don't know about the Super Bowl, but we'll win the (Eastern) division," said a confident Ryan.
He has the ability to win. The real question is whether his players have.
Chances are, the Eagles will need a year or two of seasoning under their new leader.
And, chances are, these are the NFC's five top teams:
1. CHICAGO BEARS
Two things made the Bears famous last year: some unusual offensive players, who caught the attention of the public as no other group of football players recently has, and some slam-bang pass rushers coached by the man who has gone to Philadelphia.
In the clutch in 1985, it was the defense that usually set up Jim McMahon and Walter Payton, leaving one question for 1986: Did middle linebacker Mike Singletary and his orchestra do it with talent or with Ryan's unique defense? It may be January before you know.
2. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
This appears to be as good as any team in football when Joe Montana is well.
But Walsh's blockers will have to protect Montana somehow against the wild blitzers who have all but taken over the league.
The offense has obvious strengths with Roger Craig, Jerry Rice, Joe Cribbs and Randy Cross. So has the defense with Michael Carter, Dwaine Board and Ronnie Lott. There are two questions: two new cornerbacks.
3. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Under Coach Joe Gibbs, this has been a steady, sturdy club. In the second halves of the last five seasons, the Redskins have won 32 of 39 games, an average record of 6 1/2 wins to 1 1/2 losses. They have at least tied for first place in the East for four years.
They may not have the overall strength of the Giants, but new quarterback Jay Schroeder was 5-1 last year in his first six NFL starts. And now Gibbs can alternate fresh speed and power in his one-back attack with George Rogers and Kelvin Bryant.
4. NEW YORK GIANTS