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JETS, DOLPHINS IN THE THICK OF AFC EAST RACE

The NFL is billing today's game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets as the matchup of superstar coaches. Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells, neither immodest, would certainly concur.

But for the first time in a while (since Dan Marino beat the Jets three years ago with a TD pass off a fake spike), it actually has some meaning.

With the New England Patriots' flaws exposed by the Denver Broncos Monday night, the winner can emerge as a legitimate challenger for the AFC East title. And wouldn't Parcells love to beat the Patriots with a team that was 1-15 a year ago?

"It's exciting right now," says safety Victor Green, whose only taste of success with the Jets came in his rookie year, when they started 7-4 en route to 8-8. "Winning three straight now feels real good and if we can win the next three, we'd be sitting pretty good."

The Jets are 4-2, having beaten Oakland, Cincinnati and Indianapolis since losing in overtime at New England. Next week, they get the Patriots for the second time.

The Dolphins (3-2) are unbeaten at home and winless on the road, and have played only one game decided by more than 10 points, a loss at Tampa. Marino, who's played all season under the threat of benching, had his best game of the season last week in a 17-14 win over the Chiefs.

Miami must also find a way to end the road blues.

"It's going to be a hostile situation, the crowd noise is going to be a factor, we'll be playing on an artificial surface," Johnson said. "There are distractions that are there. If you're not strong-minded, they can get to you and cause you to lose focus."

Dolphins (3-2) at Jets (4-2)

Line: Jets by 4.

Last meeting: Dolphins won, 31-28, at New York on Dec. 22, 1996.

Key stat: Despite presence of Dan Marino, Dolphins have sunk to 25th in total offense.

Worth watching: Jets' QB Neil O'Donnell having a big season, with 10 TD passes and only three interceptions.

Outlook: Jets are the turnaround story of the season, and it matters little that Dolphins have won five of last six from them. Unless the Dolphins can find a running game (they're 30th), they'll have trouble on the road.

Eagles (2-3) at Jaguars (4-1)
Today, 1 p.m., Ch. 29

Line: Jaguars by 3.

Last meeting: This is their first meeting.

Key stat: Eagles have won 10 straight October games.

Worth watching: Eagles running back Ricky Watters (4.1 yards a carry) could be ready for a big game. Jaguars need more production from Mark Brunell, who has been ordinary since returning from knee injury.

Outlook: Eagles' second-ranked offense capable of dominating Jacksonville's defense. If Watters runs, Eagles win.

Giants (3-3) at Arizona (1-4)
Today, 4 p.m., Ch. 29

Line: Cardinals by 5 1/2 .

Last meeting: Cardinals won, 31-23, at Arizona on Nov. 17, 1996.

Key stat: Giants have won three of the last four from the Cardinals.

Worth watching: Giants QB Danny Kanell gets his first start. Cardinals' Eric Swann, who has five sacks, has the challenge of getting through a tough offensive line.

Outlook: With Dave Brown injured, Kanell gets the chance to win the Giants' QB job. Giants riding high after upset of Cowboys, but Kevin Butler is due to make a game-winning field goal.

Colts (0-5) at Steelers (3-2)
Tonight, 8 p.m., TNT.

Line: Steelers by 11.

Last meeting: Steelers won, 31-21, at Pittsburgh on Sept. 8, 1994.

Key stat: Steelers have won five straight from Colts.

Worth watching: Can Pittsburgh QB Kordell Stewart keep it up? He leads the NFL with six rushing touchdowns. In the second half of last three games, he has thrown five TD passes and no interceptions.

Outlook: Winless Colts sticking with QB Jim Harbaugh, at least at the beginning. Steelers should be able to pound away with Jerome Bettis. Throw in a couple of big plays from Stewart and you have a rout.

Cowboys (3-2) at Redskins (3-2)
Monday, 9 p.m., Ch. 7

Line: Cowboys by 2 1/2 .

Last meeting: Redskins won, 37-10, at Washington on Dec. 22, 1996.

Key stats: Dallas is second in total defense, Washington is fifth.

Worth watching: What's up with Emmitt Smith? He's averaging a mediocre 4.1 yards a carry. Redskins need solid game from QB Gus Frerotte.

Outlook: Dallas still has not scored a rushing touchdown. This may be the game it happens, but winning the game is different. If Dallas is to win, it will happen despite vocal opposition from 80,000 Cowboy-haters in new Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, where the Redskins are 2-0. The fans will be fired up for Redskins' first Monday night appearance in three years.

Rams (2-3) at 49ers (4-1)

Line: 49ers by 14.

Last meeting: 49ers won, 15-12, at St. Louis on Sept. 7.

Key stat: San Francisco leads NFL with turnover differential of plus-12.

Worth watching: San Francisco QB Steve Young leads NFL with passer rating of 122.3. To pull off this upset, Rams need a huge game from Lawrence Phillips, who has rushed for four touchdowns.

Outlook: San Francisco has won 14 straight from the Rams, an amazing streak because upsets can happen within a division. San Francisco's No. 1-ranked defense should smother the Rams.

Lions (3-3) at Bucs (5-1)

Line: Bucs by 6.

Last meeting: Bucs won, 24-17, at Detroit on Sept. 7.

Key stat: Lions have won five of six from the Buccaneers.

Worth watching: Two of the NFL's top running backs: Detroit's Barry Sanders is going for his career-best fifth straight 100-yard game; Bucs rookie Warrick Dunn is averaging 5.1 yards a carry.

Outlook: Bucs gave Packers all they could handle last week and must guard against letdown against Lions. Bucs' No. 2-ranked rushing defense should be able to contain Sanders.

Packers (4-2) at Bears (0-6)

Line: Packers by 11.

Last meeting: Packers won, 38-24, in Green Bay on Sept. 1, 1997.

Key stat: Packers have beaten the Bears seven straight.

Worth watching: Erik Kramer returns as Bears' starting quarterback with a chance to show he could be the team's quarterback of the future -- again. Will Green Bay QB Brett Favre mercilessly pick apart Bears' secondary?

Outlook: Packers have struggled as they try to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but they're not about to lose to a winless team. Bears' only hope is to control the ball with Raymont Harris running. Packers expected to be without injured run-stuffer Gilbert Brown.

Panthers (2-3) at Vikings (4-2)

Line: Vikings by 4.

Last meeting: Vikings won, 14-12, at Minnesota on Oct. 6, 1996.

Key stat: Panthers have won five straight regular-season games on the road.

Worth watching: Panthers going to Steve Beuerlein as starting quarterback.

Outlook: Once again, Vikings look like a playoff team. Panthers don't resemble last season's NFC finalist. Beuerlein replaces slumping Kerry Collins, but isn't the kind of difference-maker to pull off a road victory against a tough team.

Falcons (0-5) at Saints (2-4)

Line: Saints by 2 1/2 .

Last meeting: Falcons won, 31-15, at New Orleans on Dec. 8, 1996.

Key stat: Falcons have beaten Saints four straight.

Worth watching: Saints tackle Wayne Martin leads NFL with 7 1/2 sacks.

Outlook: Can Mike Ditka's Saints make it two in a row? If the euphoria of beating the Bears has worn off, their aggressive defense should be able to contain the Falcons' woeful offense. So as long as Heath Shuler doesn't make too many mistakes . . .

Bengals (1-4) at Oilers (1-4)

Line: Oilers by 2 1/2 .

Last meeting: Bengals won, 21-13, at Houston on Dec. 15, 1996.

Key stats: Game features two of the NFL's worst defenses: Bengals are 26th, Oilers 28th.

Worth watching: Oilers' Eddie George averaging 4.8 yards a carry; Bengals' Ki-Jana Carter producing at 4.5 rate.

Outlook: A meeting of two teams that had playoff ambitions and are close to playing out the string. Oilers, somehow, have yet to intercept a pass, an embarrassment to coach Jeff Fisher. Oilers will get little help from another small crowd in Memphis.

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