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CONFERENCE SPLIT MAKES FOR SWEEPING GENERALIZATIONS

THE RETURNS ARE not complete, but it seems safe to make this sweeping generalization: The National Football League has a split personality.

Earlier this season, I noted that an unusual trend was developing in the league's home-and-home series. The team that won the first game was winning the return match much more often than in years past. The revenge factor, along with the home underdog, was having an off year.

With 12 of this week's 14 games involving rematches, I thought it would be a good time tosee if the trend has held up. That is when the gap between the AFC and NFC came to light.

In 17 home-and-home series in the AFC, there have been 13 sweeps and only four splits. In the NFC, there have been only eight sweeps and 11 splits.

This week's return matches are evenly divided, six AFC games and six NFC games. With some notable exceptions, the basic guide should be to go with the splits in the NFC and the sweeps in the AFC.

Before anyone gets the idea that I am going to use the sweep factor as an excuse to write off the Bills in their game with the Dolphins, read on.

Since everyone has an opinion on the outcome of the AFC Game of the Year, here's mine:

Forget the sweep factor and the absence of Jim Kelly. The Bills will win this game because of their defense, their superior talent, the artificial turf of Rich Stadium, the weather and, last but not least, the fans. The Bills' offensive line is banged up but can still get the job done. The Bills got this far because they have been a complete team this season for the first time ever. They won't let all that effort go to waste now.

Last week, I was 7-7 (95-96-2 for the season). My best bets were 1-1 (16-14-2 for the season).

Now, let's sweep through this week's matchups, splitting a few hairs here and there.

Best bets

Detroit over GREEN BAY ( 3 1/2 ) -- The Lions are finishing this season with a bang, just as they did last year. The Packers are deep into their quarterback closet. They won the first meeting with the Lions, so this is a solid chance to go with the NFC flow and back the Lions to gain a split.

Raiders over MINNESOTA ( 1) -- The Raiders' 5-2 record on the road matches their home mark. Traveling doesn't faze them. The Vikings are much stronger at home but are no match for a Raider team that is on an impressive roll.

Best of the rest

BUFFALO over Miami ( 3 1/2 ) -- I love the line on this game. People all over the country are probably taking the bait and betting the Dolphins and the points, writing off the Bills without Kelly. We all know a sucker bet when we see one.

Washington over INDIANAPOLIS ( 6 1/2 ) -- The Redskins still have not won two games in a row against the point spread despite their 9-5 won-loss record. This is their week to do it. The Colts are 4-3 on the road and only 2-5 at home.

Rams over ATLANTA ( 3) -- The Rams had their biggest scoring outburst of the season against the Falcons at home. A Rams sweep on the road could strengthen Falcons coach Jerry Glanville's position in the race for non-coach of the year.

Houston over CINCINNATI ( 2 1/2 ) -- The Oilers are 3-4 on the road this season, which is respectable for them. The way Warren Moon has been playing lately, Cannot distribute vertically r sweeping generalizations
you have to take the Oilers to sweep. (They won the first meeting, 48-17.)

Rest of the bets

PITTSBURGH over Cleveland ( 11) -- The Browns beat the Steelers on opening day, 13-3, but don't expect them to complete the sweep. These two teams have reversed their fortunes since then. The Steelers have been alternating high-scoring games with games in which they can't score touchdowns. This week they play at home, where the points have come much easier against teams much better than the Browns.

CHICAGO over Tampa Bay ( 6 1/2 ) -- The Bears, like the Bills, have lost their starting quarCannot distribute vertically terback. But Mike Tomczak has plenty of game experience. And the Bears' defense, even in its weakened condition, can keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone. Go with the Bears to complete a sweep.

JETS over New England ( 7) -- The Jets buried the Patriots in Foxboro. The Patriots have been playing dead ever since. Even though I don't like the Jets as home favorites, I can't bring myself to pick the Patriots in any situation.

Dallas ( 7) over PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles won their first meeting by a single point. The Cowboys have been playing with the determination of a team Cannot distribute vertically intent on making the playoffs. They might fall short, but you have to like them with the points here.

Giants over PHOENIX ( 6 1/2 ) -- Jeff Hostetler led the Giants to a come-from-behind 20-19 victory earlier in the year. He gets the starting nod in place of the injured Phil Sims and should be able to get the job done, with the Giants' defense picking up the slack.

New Orleans ( 9) over SAN FRANCISCO -- The 49ers have nothing to get up for this week. They can't even play for home-field advantage in the playoffs. They clinched that last week against the Rams.

Kansas City over SAN DIEGO ( 2) -- The Chiefs join the crowd of teams that will have to rely on their defense. But their defense is more reliable than most. The Chiefs will sweep into the playoffs with a win here.

SEATTLE over Denver ( 4 1/2 ) -- The Broncos can't do anything right this year. Last week's win at home killed any chance they had of gaining the No. 1 draft choice. There was nothing in their victory over the Chargers that makes me want to ignore their 3-11 record against the spread. This looks to be an AFC series just waiting to be split.

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