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VIKINGS ARE ON A LOSING STREAK THAT CAN PUT THEM IN THE PLAYOFFS

It's a game that defines the 1997 season.

The Minnesota Vikings, losers of five straight games, can lose a sixth Sunday and still make the playoffs.

Their opponent? Those ultimate spoilers, the Indianapolis Colts (3-12). They have yet to beat a team with a losing record, but have three wins over teams that are a combined 30-15, including one over Green Bay and a 41-0 shellacking of Miami last week.

Minnesota (8-7) is one of three NFC teams competing for two wild-card spots after losing to the Lions on a Scott Mitchell-to-Herman Moore 1-yard TD pass with three seconds left last Sunday. Randall Cunningham, who replaced the injured Brad Johnson, is now 0-2 as a starter.

If the Vikings beat the Colts and Detroit (8-7) beats the New York Jets at the Silverdome, it's simple: Minnesota and Detroit are in. But if either loses, Washington (7-7-1) can make it by beating Philadelphia in Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.

And if the Redskins lose, then the Vikings and Lions are in, even in defeat and at 8-8. Two .500 teams have never made the playoffs in one season.

If that happens, Minnesota would become the first team to enter the playoffs with six straight losses; the 1986 Jets began 10-1, then lost five straight, qualified as a wild-card, then won a game and lost their second in double-overtime.

The only team to lose six straight in a season and make it was the 1970 Bengals, who won their final seven and finished 8-6.

"We're not even thinking about another loss," said Minnesota cornerback Corey Fuller. "Just winning, and then seeing who we play in the first playoff game. Because when you get in the playoffs it doesn't matter how many wins you have."

The AFC is equally simple -- the Jets, New England and Miami (all 9-6) are competing for the two remaining spots.

If the Jets beat the Lions, they're in as a wild-card. They'll be joined by the winner of Monday night's game in Miami between the Patriots and Dolphins. That team will win the AFC East and be host of a first-round game.

The Jets can only take the division title if they win and the Dolphins and Patriots tie. If that happens, New England would be in and Miami out.

Colts (3-12) at Vikings (9-7)
Sunday, 1 p.m., Ch. 2

Line: Vikings by 6 1/2 .

Last meeting:: Vikings won, 12-3, in Minnesota on Nov. 20, 1988.

Key stat: Minnesota's five-game losing streak is the longest of the Dennis Green era.

Worth watching: Vikings need a big game from quarterback Randall Cunningham. Can Jim Harbaugh put together two big games in a row -- he threw for four TDs last week.

Outlook: Vikings capable of one of the all-time back-into-the-playoffs jobs. Even if they lose, they're in if Washington loses. Colts have won two straight, but home-dome advantage should save Vikings.

Rams (4-11) at Panthers (7-8)
Today, 4 p.m., Ch. 29

Line: Panthers by 5.

Last meeting: Panthers won, 16-10, in St. Louis on Nov. 23.

Key stat: Panthers have lost four of their last six.

Worth watching: Two young quarterbacks trying to finish the season on the upswing -- Rams' Tony Banks and Panthers' Kerry Collins.

Outlook: A year ago the Panthers were the NFL's darlings -- NFC West champs in only their second season. This year, they've been more like a third-year expansion team. They're not a young team, so their future is more muddled than anyone would have thought when the season began.

Jets (9-6) at Lions (8-7)
Sunday, 4 p.m., Ch. 2

Line: Lions by 7.

Last meeting: Lions won, 18-7, in East Rutherford on Dec. 10, 1994.

Key stat: Detroit has won four if its last five, losing only in Miami.

Worth watching: Lions' Barry Sanders, with league-leading 1,869 yards rushing, needs only 15 yards for a career-high and 131 yards to become the third player to rush for 2,000 yards.

Outlook: The winner makes the playoffs and the loser likely goes home. Once again, Lions are hot at the end of the season. In the first season under Bill Parcells, the Jets already have produced the biggest one-season turnaround in NFL history (1-15 to no worse than 9-7). A win gives them a wild-card berth. Quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who looked like a free-agent bust a year ago, gets the chance to prove his worth.

Patriots (9-6) at Dolphins (9-6)
Monday, 9 p.m., Ch. 7

Line: Dolphins by 2.

Last meeting: Patriots won, 27-24, at Foxboro on Nov. 23.

Key stat: Patriots lead AFC with turnover differential of plus 11.

Worth watching: Miami quarterback Dan Marino has won 12 of his last 15 starts against Patriots. New England's Drew Bledsoe leads the AFC with 28 TD passes.

Outlook: The winner takes the AFC East and No. 3 seed in AFC playoffs. Loser is a wild-card unless Jets win Sunday; in that case, loser is out.

Giants (9-5-1) at Cowboys (6-9)
Sunday, 1 p.m., Ch. 29

Line: Cowboys by 3.

Last meeting: Giants won, 20-17, in East Rutherford on Oct. 5.

Key stat: The Giants are the 11th NFL team since 1970 to go from last place to first.

Worth watching: Will Giants quarterback Danny Kanell keep his momentum heading into the playoffs? Will Cowboys' Emmitt Smith bounce back for one last good game this season?

Outlook: Giants just trying to stay fresh for the playoffs, but they're a young team on the rise that wouldn't mind continuing to win. Cowboys are old, and showing it.

49ers (13-2) at Seahawks (7-8)
Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPN

Line: Seahawks by 2.

Last meeting: 49ers won, 24-22, in Seattle on Dec. 8, 1991.

Key stat: San Francisco leads NFL with turnover differential of plus 23.

Worth watching: San Francisco backup quarterbacks Jeff Brohm and Jim Druckenmiller, the team's No. 1 draft choice. Steve Young is likely to play little in a meaningless game.

Outlook: After losing Jerry Rice for the season in the first game of his comeback, San Francisco doesn't figure to take many chances in this one. Seahawks going with Warren Moon, instead of giving young Jon Kitna his second start.

Bears (4-11) at Bucs (9-6)

Line: Bucs by 7 1/2 .

Last meeting: Bears won, 13-7, at Soldier Field on Nov. 23.

Key stat: Bears' defense has held three of last four opponents to 10 points or less.

Worth watching: Erik Kramer trying to finish the season with a strong showing so the Bears -- or someone else -- will anoint him a starter for next season. How much will Tampa Bay running back Mike Alstott test his sore thigh in this game?

Outlook: Bucs have lost three of their last four and need a win to be assured of starting the playoffs at home; a loss means they might have to go to Detroit or Minnesota. Incentive does mean something. Bears will play with nothing-to-lose attitude, which will make it close.

Saints (6-9) at Chiefs (12-3)

Line: Chiefs by 7 1/2 .

Last meeting: Kansas City won, 30-17, in New Orleans on Sept. 4, 1994.

Key stat: Chiefs have won last three games by a combined 103-16.

Worth watching: Kansas City's Elvis Grbac returns from a broken collarbone and is likely to start, while Rich Gannon returns to the bench.

Outlook: Although playing in the NFC West makes life easier for all, Mike Ditka has done more with the Saints than most expected. Chiefs have wrapped up top seed in the AFC and have little to play for, but their momentum should carry them through this one.

Eagles (6-8-1) at Redskins (7-7-1)

Line: Redskins by 6.

Last meeting: Eagles won, 24-10, in Philadelphia on Oct. 5.

Key stat: Philadelphia coach Ray Rhodes is 4-1 against the Redskins.

Worth watching: Washington depending on quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who was effective two weeks ago in victory at Arizona but not last week in loss to Giants. Running back Terry Allen is questionable.

Outlook: Redskins are the latest proof that too many teams make the playoffs. Despite their record, they can qualify for the postseason with a win and a loss by Minnesota or Detroit. If it comes down to a field goal, Redskins will be holding their breath -- ex-Packer Chris Jacke, idle all season, replaces the injured Scott Blanton.

Steelers (11-4) at Oilers (7-8)

Line: Oilers by 3.

Last meeting: Steelers won, 37-24, in Pittsburgh on Sept. 28.

Key stat: Pittsburgh defense leads AFC, allowing only 297.6 yards per game.

Worth watching: Steelers QB Kordell Stewart needs just 67 passing yards and 44 rushing yards to become only the third player to have 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in a season (Randall Cunningham did it 1988-90, Steve Young in 1992).

Outlook: Steelers, who have won six of last seven from the Oilers, will use this as a scrimmage for their playoff opener the weekend of Jan. 3-4. Oilers only goal is a .500 season.

Falcons (7-8) at Cardinals (3-12)

Line: Falcons by 2.

Last meeting: Cardinals won, 40-37, in Tempe, Ariz., on Nov. 26, 1995.

Key stat: Atlanta's defense has allowed an average of 10 points in the last four games.

Worth watching: Arizona rookie quarterback Jake Plummer has shown promise (73.2 rating). Atlanta's Chris Chandler has quietly had a big season, ranking second in the league with a 92.8 passer rating with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Outlook: Falcons figure to finish the season with six straight wins after a 2-8 start. With a loss, Cardinals wrap up the first pick in the draft, which they may trade because they're happy with Plummer and someone will pay dearly for the chance to draft Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf.

Jaguars (10-5) at Raiders (4-11)

Line: Jaguars by 4.

Last meeting: Raiders won, 17-3, in Oakland on Sept. 15, 1996.

Key stat: In the last 20 games, Jaguars have AFC-best 15-5 record.

Worth watching: Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell has thrown only 16 TD passes, but still ranks second in the AFC with a passer rating of 89.3.

Outlook: If Jacksonville wins and Broncos lose, Jaguars have home field in the wild-card round. Raiders have nothing to play for, and figure to end one of the most dismal seasons ever for a once-proud franchise on a down note.

Chargers (4-11) at Broncos (11-4)

Line: Broncos by 14.

Last meeting: Denver won, 38-28, in San Diego on Nov. 30.

Key stat: Broncos are 7-0 at home this season.

Worth watching: How much work will Denver All-Pro running back Terrell Davis, who is questionable, get? He injured his shoulder in a loss Monday night in San Francisco.

Outlook: Following road losses to Pittsburgh and San Francisco, Broncos are reeling. They need a victory to clinch home field in wild-card round. The home field and the lowly Chargers will save them.

Ravens (6-8-1) at Bengals (6-9)

Line: Bengals by 6 1/2 .

Last meeting: Ravens won, 23-10, in Baltimore on Sept. 7.

Key stat: Cincinnati has won 10 of its last 12 at home.

Worth watching: Ravens' quarterback controversy of '98 is under way. Eric Zeier has led Baltimore to two straight victories, relegating Vinny Testaverde to the bench.

Outlook: Cincinnati has won six of its last seven as Boomer Esiason has re-established himself as a starting quarterback and rookie Corey Dillon has rushed for 1,069 yards (5.1 yards per carry).

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