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AVOID CHRONIC LOSERS REGARDLESS OF SYSTEM

THE SYMMETRY of the season is complete as the final four teams in the NFL get their bye this week.

These are not the final four as in the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament -- the cream of the crop. These are the four teams that finished last in their five-team divisions in 1989 -- the dregs of the league. Call it the Week of the Bad Bye.

But what a difference a year makes. None of the four teams is in last place this season, and two of them -- Dallas and San Diego -- have legitimate chances to make the playoffs as wild cards.

The other two -- the Jets and Tampa Bay -- have hit the skids lately. But both teams look like champs compared to New England, Cleveland and Denver.

You remember Denver. The Broncos were the AFC champs last season. The Browns were a playoff team just a year ago. And it seems like only yesterday the Patriots were a defensive power.

Now they are on my list of teams that should be avoided at all costs -- that means pick against them even if they are being spotted a pile of points. While most teams alternate between good weeks and bad weeks, these are the consistent losers.

The Broncos are 2-10 against the point spread, 0-5 in their last five games and 1-7 in their last eight.

The Browns are 3-9 against the spread, 0-4 in their last four games and 1-6 in their last seven.

The Patriots are also 3-9 against the spread and are 1-5 in their last six games.

Even though the Jets and Tampa Bay escaped the cellar with strong starts this season, they have been playing themselves back onto the least-wanted list.

The Buccaneers are 4-8-1 against the spread but are 1-6 in their last seven games.

The Jets were 7-2 against the spread but have fallen to 7-6.

Speaking of the Patriots and the Jets, they conspired to send The System to its ignominious death last week. Their overwhelming losses proved that any system that makes you bet on a bad team even when you know you shouldn't is better off buried.

On a more positive note, my best bets were 2-0, leveling the season mark at 13-13-2. Overall, I was 6-8 last week (78-87-2 for the season).

Best bets

Buffalo over INDIANAPOLIS ( 5 1/2 ) -- The Bills have lost their last two games at Indianapolis, and the Colts have been strong finishers the past couple of seasons. But that was then and this is now. The Bills are focused on the Super Bowl, and they know the best way to win it is to keep the home-field advantage through the playoffs. That means not losing to teams like the Colts.

Raiders over DETROIT ( 3) -- The Raiders play tough football from start to finish. The Lions wilt in the stretch. The Raiders are 9-3 against the spread, which puts them atop the NFL with the Giants. The line here is a bargain, considering a first-place team is playing a last-place team.

Best of the rest

Philadelphia ( 1) over MIAMI -- The Dolphins can curse the Bills for sending them an angry Eagles team to face this week. Buddy Ryan's boys are bruised and battered, but don't expect them to be beaten for a second week in a row. They are too good for that. The Dolphins have been swimming over their heads.

Phoenix ( 4 1/2 ) over ATLANTA -- The Falcons can't win on the road, and they can't be expected to win at home without quarterback Chris Miller, who is lost for the season with a broken collarbone. The Cardinals are 3-0 against the spread in the last three weeks and 6-6 overall.

PITTSBURGH over New England ( 13) -- The Steelers still have their eyes on the playoffs and they have handled the weaker teams well. Don't worry about all those points. The Patriots have lost eight of their last 10 games by 13 points or more.

RAMS over New Orleans ( 4 1/2 ) -- The Rams are playing for respectability and gained a big measure of it as the only team to defeat the 49ers this year. A victory at home would give them three in a row and a 6-7 record.

Rest of the bets

Seattle ( 3 1/2 ) over GREEN BAY -- This is one of those late-season specials: a game both teams have to win. The Seahawks have given good teams fits in the past few weeks. They should be able to play the Packers even.

HOUSTON over Cleveland ( 13) -- The Oilers reverted to their run-and-shoot-yourself-in-the-foot offense against the Seahawks. They are coming home and should be able to recoup against the Brownies.

GIANTS over Minnesota ( 6 1/2 ) -- The Giants have lost two in a row; the Vikings have won five. The Giants can't afford to sulk about their loss to the 49ers or they will find themselves playing a wild-card team in the first round of the playoffs. The schedule-makers were not kind to the Vikings.

CINCINNATI ( 4) over San Francisco -- Remember that Super Bowl game two years ago that the Bengals almost won? This is their first chance at revenge, and they catch the 49ers at a good time. The defending champs had to give everything they had on defense Monday night to hold off the Giants. They should have a letdown, but they can afford one more than the Giants can.

KANSAS CITY Over Denver ( 7) -- The Chiefs were lucky to pull out a one-point victory in their first meeting this season. But the Broncos have gone into the tank since then, and the Chiefs have put their offense back on track.

Chicago ( 4) over WASHINGTON -- The Redskins can be tough at home, but they have developed the league's most consistent pattern of inconsistency. They have alternated losses and wins every week since the third week of the season. This is their week to lose. And the Bears, like the Giants, have to keep winning for home-field playoff advantage.

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