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The worst loss suffered by the New England Patriots during last year's Super Bowl season was 34-8 to the Denver Broncos. That was the team's biggest defeat since a 37-3 loss the year before to those same Broncos.

In fact, Denver's dominance goes back even further. Counting an AFC playoff game in January 1987, the Broncos have defeated New England nine straight times.

It's a trend that, for the most part, defies explanation, but is one the Patriots are eager to halt when the two undefeated teams meet Monday night at Mile High Stadium.

The game marks the latest in a season in which unbeaten teams have played each other on Monday night. New England, coming off a bye week, is 4-0. Denver is 5-0.

Six of the previous meetings in the series were at Mile High, and in most of those years the Broncos had the better team.

But that doesn't explain the Broncos' 21-10 win in the 1988 regular-season finale when Denver was in turmoil and head coach Dan Reeves was poised to fire his entire defensive staff, while New England had a 9-6 record. Or last year's Patriot debacle at Foxboro Stadium, when the Pats were on a roll at 7-3 and driving toward a playoff berth?

"I would say we definitely match up well against them," Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski said.

Maybe now. But Denver's winning streak began in 1984, when Ron Meyer and Dan Reeves coached the respective teams.

Some Broncos believe there's no sense in comparing the history between the two teams.

"You can't even compare what we've done the last two years to what's going on now because their whole team is completely different," Broncos offensive guard Mark Schlereth said. The Broncos have changed, too.

The only constant is Broncos quarterback John Elway, whose 9-0 record against the Patriots is his best against any opponent.

"I can't explain that (his 9-0 record)," Elway said. "All but three of them have been in Denver, so that has helped. The ball has bounced right a couple times for us. Really, past history doesn't have anything to do with what we're going to do Monday night. It's a whole different deal."

New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe agreed.

"The turnover (in personnel) from two years ago to now has been tremendous," he said. "So to say that John has had a mastery over this team -- well, it's not the same team it was two years ago.

"Obviously, I've had a couple of bad games against the Broncos the past couple of years. Hopefully, the third time is a charm and I can play a better game Monday night."

The game also matches two of the NFL's top running backs and two of its best tight ends.

New England's Curtis Martin is fourth in the AFC with 474 yards rushing. Denver's Terrell Davis leads the NFL with 604 yards.

Pats' tight end Ben Coates has been to three Pro Bowls and Denver's Shannon Sharpe to five.

Patriots (4-0) at Broncos (5-0)
Monday, 9 p.m., Ch. 7.

Line: Broncos by 4 1/2 .

Last meeting: Broncos won, 34-8, at New England on Nov. 17, 1996.

Key stats: Game features two highest-scoring teams in the NFL: New England 32.5, Denver 31.2.

Worth watching: Patriots' Drew Bledsoe is first in the NFL in passing; Broncos' John Elway is third.

Outlook: This is a matchup worthy of an AFC Championship Game. Game matches overwhelming offenses and underrated defenses. But Broncos have an extra home-field advantage at Mile High Stadium and a nine-game winning streak against Patriots.

Bucs (5-0) at Packers (3-2)
Today, 1 p.m., Ch. 29

Line: Packers by 8.

Last meeting: Packers won, 13-7, at Green Bay on Oct. 27, 1996.

Key stats: Packers have won eight of the last nine from the Bucs.

Worth watching: Brett Favre must bounce back from an off week against the Lions and start playing like an MVP again. Tampa Bay's Trent Dilfer must continue to prove that his turnaround is no fluke.

Outlook: Conventional wisdom holds that the Packers, back home after loss at Detroit, are a lock. Everything must end, and it's time for Green Bay's 18-game winning streak at Lambeau Field to go into the history books. Packers are slowly being beaten down by injuries, and Warrick Dunn's game-breaking speed is a load for anyone to handle.

Jets (3-2) at Colts (0-4)
Today, 4 p.m., Ch. 2

Line: Jets by 3.

Last meeting: Colts won, 34-29, at Indianapolis on Nov. 17, 1996.

Key stats: Colts have won five straight from the Jets.

Worth watching: Jets' Adrian Murrell is one of the NFL's new stars, with 492 yards rushing and a 4.4-yard average.

Outlook: Although Colts have handled Jets in the past, Bill Parcells has changed things quickly in New York. Plus, Colts' offense desperately in search of a big-play performer; Jim Harbaugh has a passer rating of only 71.6 with just one TD pass.

Saints (1-4) at Bears (0-5)
Tonight, 8 p.m., TNT.

Line: Bears by 3 1/2 .

Last meeting: Saints won, 27-24, in New Orleans on Oct. 13, 1996.

Key stats: Bears' offense has fallen to 28th in the NFL; they're 29th in passing offense.

Worth watching: How long can Bears stick with Rick Mirer, who has failed to direct a TD drive in two games as the starter? How long can Mike Ditka stick with Heath Shuler, who has had only one good game all season and has just one TD pass vs. nine interceptions?

Outlook: At long last, a team the Bears can beat. Defense has kept them in last two games. Against Saints' 27th-ranked offense, it may be able to win one all by itself. Offense should benefit from the return of guard Todd Perry.

Bengals (1-3) at Jaguars (3-1)

Line: Jaguars by 6 1/2 .

Last meeting: Jaguars won, 30-27, at Jacksonville on Dec. 1, 1996.

Key stats: Both teams should be concerned about their running games: Cincinnati is 21st, Jacksonville, 25th.

Worth watching: How well can Bengals running back Ki-Jana Carter play? This is his first game since tearing a rotator cuff two weeks ago.

Outlook: After strong finish last season, Bengals are in danger of slipping out of contention early. They may play with a sense of desperation. But Mark Brunell should be able to operate against Bengals' soft defense.

Cowboys (3-1) at Giants (2-3)

Line: Cowboys by 7 1/2 .

Last meeting: Giants won, 20-6, at New York on Nov. 24, 1996.

Key stats: Cowboys have won eight of last 10 from Giants.

Worth watching: Dallas RB Emmitt Smith is in search of his first big game -- he has only 355 yards. Giants need a boost from Rodney Hampton, who is recovering from knee injury.

Outlook: All of Dallas is fretting over the Cowboys' 22nd-ranked offense and their struggles with blitzes. But the Giants are punchless, and Dallas does what it has to do to win.

Chiefs (4-1) at Dolphins (2-2)

Line: Dolphins by 3.

Last meeting: Dolphins won, 13-6, at Miami on Dec. 11, 1995.

Key stats: Dolphins are last in the NFL in rushing.

Worth watching: The Chiefs are showing the good that can be done in the free-agent market. Elvis Grbac has six TD passes vs. five interceptions and Andre Rison leads the team with 25 catches, two for touchdowns.

Outlook: The Chiefs have won four straight, two of them on the road (Oakland, Carolina). Jimmy Johnson's rebuilding plan has hit a snag -- no rushing game.

Steelers (2-2) at Ravens (3-2)

Line: Steelers by 2.

Last meeting: Ravens won, 31-17, at Baltimore on Dec. 1, 1996.

Key stats: Steelers are second in the league in two of the most important team statistics: rushing offense and rushing defense.

Worth watching: Pittsburgh QB Kordell Stewart began to show what he can do last week, throwing for one TD and rushing for two in victory over Oilers. Steelers must block Baltimore defensive end Peter Boulware, who leads all rookies with four sacks.

Outlook: Despite loss last week at San Diego, Ravens are one of the NFL's surprise teams. Vinny Testaverde has become a consistent passer (at least three TDs in nine of the last 17 games) and could exploit shaky Pittsburgh secondary.

Chargers (2-3) at Raiders (2-3)

Line: Raiders by 7.

Last meeting: Raiders won, 23-14, at San Diego on Oct. 21, 1996.

Key stats: Visiting team has won seven of the last nine.

Worth watching: Two of the hottest receivers in football. Chargers' Tony Martin emerged from season-long slump to catch three TD passes in win over Ravens. He could keep it up against the league's worst defense. Raiders' Tim Brown has 37 catches, four TDs.

Outlook: The passing of Jeff George and running of Napoleon Kaufman will provide plenty of Raiders scoring. But their defense will do the same for the Chargers.

Redskins (3-1) at Eagles (1-3)

Line: Eagles by 3 1/2 .

Last meeting: Redskins won, 26-21, at Philadelphia on Nov. 17, 1996.

Key stats: Eagles have won eight of nine from the Redskins.

Worth watching: Washington QB Gus Frerotte is proving the Redskins made the right choice in giving him a big contract. His three TD passes last week paved the way for victory over undefeated Jaguars.

Outlook: Eagles shaping up as one of the season's big disappointments; Redskins, a big success story. Washington is allowing only 12.3 points per game, and Frerotte is running an efficient offense.

Oilers (1-3) at Seahawks (2-3)

Line: Seahawks by 6.

Last meeting: Seahawks won, 23-16, at Seattle on Nov. 3, 1996.

Key stats: It's Oilers' No. 26 pass offense vs. Seahawks' No. 11 pass defense.

Worth watching: Oilers need QB Steve McNair to pick up his game. In his first year as starter, he has only four TD passes in four games.

Outlook: So far, Oilers have failed to step up to the level of contender, and a loss here would make a run at a playoff spot unlikely. Seahawks' improving defense can hold RB Eddie George (only 69 yards, no rushing TDs in last two games) in check.

Vikings (3-2) at Cardinals (1-3)

Line: Cardinals by 1.

Last meeting: Vikings won, 41-17, at Minnesota on Dec. 1996.

Key stats: It's Minnesota's No. 3 offense vs. Arizona's No. 6 defense.

Worth watching: Cardinals' Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams covering Vikings' Pro Bowl receiver Jake Reed.

Outlook: Cardinals due for a breakout. Their three losses have come by a total of 10 points, and only a missed field goal attempt by Kevin Butler prevented them from upsetting Bucs last week.

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