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REDSKINS A CLEAR-CUT CHOICE IN FIGHT FOR FIRST

So far in this National Football League season, the most successful team is the one that put together the Monday Night Football lineup.

This week, amid a lot of mismatches and mishmashes, the Monday Night team offers us one of the NFL's most bitter rivalries, Dallas vs. Washington, in a battle for first place in the NFC East.

I know, the Bills game at New England is also being billed as a fight for first place. But it's much more complicated and much less clear-cut. If the Bills defeat the Patriots, the two teams would be tied at 4-2. But Miami is playing the Jets this week, and a Jets victory coupled with a Patriots loss would put the Jets in sole possession of first place at 5-2. And if the Dolphins win and the Patriots lose, the Dolphins would join the Patriots and Bills in first place at 4-2. Of course, if the Patriots beat the Bills, the Pats remain in first place by themselves no matter what the Jets and Dolphins do.

So, the Cowboys-Redskins game is the only one this week in which both teams have a chance to claim outright possession of first place in their division with a victory.

Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised to see Philadelphia wind up in first place in the NFC East, but right now I like the Redskins playing in their new stadium against the stumbling Cowboys.

The Redskins are 2-0 at home this season. The Cowboys are 1-2 against the point spread as road favorites. They are 0-3 against the spread in divisional games.

The Redskins beat the Cowboys at home last year (37-10) and the year before (27-23). The last time these teams played in Washington on Monday night, in 1993, the Redskins won, 35-16.

This game should be a battle, but I like the home team as underdogs on Monday night. I'll take the Redskins.

As for that tag-team match for first place in the AFC East, there's no need for in-depth analysis. This is all you need to know:

Over the past 10 years -- and probably longer -- the Bills have never gone into a game against the Patriots as such huge underdogs (9 points). Likewise, the Jets have never been favored by as much as a field goal against the Dolphins. This week, the Jets are favored by four.

I doubt the Bills can beat the Patriots outright, and the Jets may be able to squeak one out against the Dolphins, but the point spreads in both games are sending a clear message: Take the Bills and the Dolphins.

Best bet

When San Francisco played at St. Louis in the second week of this season, the 49ers were without Steve Young and Jerry Rice. They still managed to win, 15-12. Since then, Young has returned in fine form, and the 49ers are mowing down the opposition. There's no reason they can't keep it up this week against the Rams.

Before this year's first meeting, the 49ers had beaten the Rams in 10 of their last 12 games by more than 14 points. The Niners won at home last year, 34-0, and in 1995, 41-13. This game has the biggest point spread of the week, but the 49ers are still the best bet.

Best of the rest

Some things in the NFL can't be explained. You just have to accept them. For example, no matter what else happens during the season, Atlanta always goes to New Orleans as the underdog and always wins or covers the point spread. The Falcons have run that amazing string to 12-0. So forget the fact that the Falcons are 0-5 this year. They started last season 0-8 and still beat the Saints twice, winning at New Orleans, 31-15, as two-point underdogs. Fly with the Falcons. . . . When the season began, there was a lot of talk about Green Bay going undefeated. Now, the Packers are facing the prospect of going through the season without ever covering the point spread. The streak is up to 0-6, including the Packers' 14-point win over Chicago as 15-point favorites on opening day. This week, the line is 11, and the Packers will cover. Be there.

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