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PATRIOTS, JETS CUT TO THE AFC EAST CHASE

It's not a first. It's not for first place.

Is it just another NFL game in the middle of the season? No.

Is it the Super Hype Bowl? Hardly.

When the New England Patriots play the New York Jets at the Meadowlands today, the entire pro football world won't stop to observe. The matchup remains interesting, but this time for the football, not the sideshow.

"That game is over with and we're not going to gripe about it," Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson said of the 27-24 overtime loss at Foxboro in coach Bill Parcells' return to New England in Week Three. That game was accompanied by the kind of media circus usually reserved for a Super Bowl, and the fans got caught up in it, too, as they, uh, welcomed Parcells back to the area he abandoned after leading the Patriots to the AFC crown.

"This is a new New England team and a new Jets team," Johnson said. "Everyone has grown. It's totally different now."

The Patriots apparently feel the same way.

"The last time, it was personal," said Chris Slade, the linebacker-sack specialist who was made into a part-time player late last season by Parcells. "This time, it's business. I think that's the way our guys will approach it."

What that means is a 5-1 New England team, sitting atop the AFC East, against a 4-3 New York squad that is 1-3 in the division and desperately needs a victory to avoid falling to also-ran status.

New England has won the last six meetings -- five with Parcells at the helm.

New York struggles at home (1-2 this season, 14 losses in the last 15 games at Giants Stadium). Its defense ranks 23rd in the league, while New England's is third. The Jets are 12th in offense, the Pats are fifth.

A mismatch? Not likely, because Parcells finds a way to keep his teams close. But certainly a major test for the Jets.

"I feel an urgency to get after this team and win," Jets linebacker Chad Cascadden said. This team needs to get a win like this, against a team like this."

Patriots (5-1) at Jets (4-3)
Today, 1 p.m., Ch. 2

Line: Patriots by 3 1/2 .

Last meeting: Patriots won, 27-24, in OT in Foxboro on Sept. 14.

Key stats: Patriots have won 10 straight AFC East games.

Worth watching: New England's Martin ran for 199 yards in September victory. Jets' Adrian Murrell has rushed for 100 yards in two of last three against Pats.

Outlook: Parcells almost stunned his old team five weeks ago. This is Jets' chance to show they will make a run at a playoff berth a year after going 1-15. This week, Parcells gets the Pats in the Meadowlands. Jets must stop Bledsoe from making too many big plays. Jets need big pass rush from end Hugh Douglas, who isn't having a big year.

Broncos (6-0) at Raiders (2-4)
Today, 4 p.m., Ch. 2

Line: Broncos by 5.

Last meeting: Broncos won, 24-19, in Denver on Dec. 15, 1996.

Key stats: Denver has beaten Oakland four straight.

Worth watching: John Elway picks apart the NFL's No. 29 pass defense. Elway is fourth in the NFL in passing, with 12 TD passes and only five interceptions. Once again, Jeff George (No. 2 in passing) will put up some good numbers and lose.

Outlook: Raiders just not tough enough to have a chance of pulling off this upset -- they've already lost home games to AFC West rivals Kansas City and San Diego. Broncos should coast to their first 7-0 start in history.

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

Line: Lions by 6 1/2 .

Last meeting: Giants won, 35-7, in Pontiac on Oct. 27, 1996.

Key stats: Giants are going for fourth straight win, which they haven't achieved since winning six in a row in 1994.

Worth watching: Detroit running back Barry Sanders has rushed for more than 100 yards in his last five games and is No. 4 all-time rusher with 12,513 yards. Giants hope Tyrone Wheatley's 103-yard effort in win over Cardinals was not just another tease.

Outlook: In their first year under coach Jim Fassel, Giants are one of the NFL's surprise teams. Few would have guessed Lions would be 4-3 in first year with Bobby Ross. Playing at home gives Lions a slight edge.

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

Line: Dolphins by 2.

Last meeting: Dolphins won, 24-14, in Cleveland in 1993.

Key stats: Miami's No. 13 offense vs. Baltimore's No. 30 defense.

Worth watching: Miami QB Dan Marino is on one of those runs -- 126 passes without an interception, two 300-yard games in first six weeks. Baltimore QB Vinny Testaverde has thrown three TD passes in 10 of last 18 games.

Outlook: Dolphins look like a playoff team. Marino has shaken off the rust and Miami has allowed an NFL-low four sacks. Dolphins' losses have been to Green Bay and Tampa Bay (both 5-2).

Jaguars (5-1) at Cowboys (3-3)

Line: Cowboys by 4.

Last meeting: First meeting.

Key stats: Cowboys are second in the NFL in total defense.

Worth watching: Jaguars receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith vs. Cowboys corners Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith.

Outlook: Coming off Monday night loss at Washington, Cowboys face one of those must-win-to-save-face games, the kind of game Dallas usually wins. True, Jacksonville has won 10 of its last 11 regular-season games. But a trip to Texas Stadium against a desperate team is different.

Steelers (4-2) at Bengals (1-5)

Line: Steelers by 5 1/2 .

Last meeting: Bengals won, 34-24, in Cincinnati on Nov. 10, 1996.

Key stats: Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher is 8-2 against Cincinnati.

Worth watching: Steelers running back Jerome Bettis has rushed for 686 yards, fourth in the NFL, and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Bengals could use big game from wide receiver Carl Pickens (31 catches, three TDs).

Outlook: Bengals are falling apart. This week coach Bruce Coslet openly questioned how much some of his players even wanted to win. They might want to win this one, but Steelers can literally run right through NFL's worst rushing defense.

49ers (5-1) at Falcons (1-5)

Line: 49ers by 11.

Last meeting: 49ers won, 34-7, in San Francisco on Sept. 21.

Key stats: San Francisco has won six of last seven from Atlanta and 11 of last 13 NFC West games.

Worth watching: San Francisco QB Steve Young leads the NFL with passer rating of 117.2. He could improve it this week.

Outlook: San Francisco goes for its sixth straight victory against the weak portion of its schedule (but only two games remain against weak NFC West foes after this week). Falcons picked up first win last week (over Saints). It may have done wonders for their confidence, but that won't help.

Redskins (4-2) at Oilers (2-4)

Line: Pick.

Last meeting: Redskins won, 16-13, in Washington on Nov. 3, 1991.

Key stats: Oilers' No. 2 rushing offense takes aim at Redskins' No. 29 rushing defense.

Worth watching: Houston running back Eddie George has four 100-yard games this season. Redskins' passing game, led by Gus Frerotte (eight TD passes, 74.8 rating) may have to carry the load.

Outlook: Redskins are coming off an emotional Monday night victory over Dallas, in which they lost both running back Terry Allen and wide receiver Michael Westbrook for two weeks with knee injuries. Oilers don't have much of a home-field advantage in Memphis, but they do have George.

Cardinals (1-5) at Eagles (2-4)

Line: Eagles by 8.

Last meeting: Eagles won, 29-19, in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1996.

Key stats: Eagles lead the NFL in total offense and first downs.

Worth watching: The quarterbacks. Rodney Peete will replace slumping starter Ty Detmer for Eagles. And with Kent Graham injured, Cardinals expect to give Stoney Case first start.

Outlook: In Arizona, the Vince Tobin regime is on the rocks after four straight losses. Ex-Bear Kevin Butler is out after missing some key FG attempts. But can the oft-waived Joe Nedney do any better? Cards perfect tonic for Eagles, who have lost three out of four.

Panthers (2-4) at Saints (2-5)

Line: Panthers by 5.

Last meeting: Panthers won, 19-7, in Charlotte on Oct. 20, 1996.

Key stats: Panthers have won three of four, including the last two, against the Saints.

Worth watching: Rookie quarterback Danny Wuerffel gets his first start for Saints. Panthers rookie wide receiver Rae Carruth has 18 catches, two for touchdowns, in last three games.

Outlook: Well, at least Mike Ditka didn't give up a No. 1 draft choice for a quarterback he's benched (Heath Shuler cost a No. 3 and a No. 5). Wuerffel must prove his awkward, shot put-like delivery isn't a liability in NFL. Panthers put up a good fight in loss at Minnesota last week.

Seahawks (3-3) at Rams (2-4)

Line: Seahawks by 2.

Last meeting: Seahawks won, 23-9, in Seattle on Dec. 22, 1991.

Key stats: Seahawks have won three of last four; Rams have lost four of last five.

Worth watching: Seahawks have thrived under the efficient leadership of QB Warren Moon (78.2 rating, six TD passes, six interceptions). Rams still looking for a big breakthrough from QB Tony Banks (60.2 rating).

Outlook: Rams haven't scored more than 17 points since opening day, so Seahawks should be able to play a conservative road game and still win.

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