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STEWART'S DESIRE TO AD-LIB COULD MEAN TROUBLE FOR DOLPHINS

Here's some bad news for Jimmy Johnson and his Dolphins defense as they prepare to welcome the Pittsburgh Steelers today:

After a meeting with coach Bill Cowher and Ray Sherman, the new offensive coordinator, Kordell Stewart is ready to improvise more, the way he did when Chan Gailey had Sherman's job.

"I think I'm pretty much OK," says Stewart, ranked fourth from the bottom among NFL quarterbacks after two games. "You want to go 10-for-10 with 300 yards and two or three touchdowns, but it's not always going to happen."

If Stewart's right, it means that Dan Marino, who has passed for just 294 yards in wins over Indianapolis and Buffalo, is liable to get more work. Because if Pittsburgh scores, the Dolphins will call more often on Marino, who had thrown just 50 passes in two games, 30 fewer than normal.

Stewart's problems adjusting to Sherman's more conservative offense are probably the main reason the Steelers have stumbled at the start -- if 2-0 is a stumble.

"Kordell's putting a lot of pressure on himself, because he knows how much is expected of him," Sherman says. "All I want him to do is relax, because he'll be fine."

Miami's defense has capitalized so far on the inexperience of Peyton Manning and Rob Johnson. Stewart is more mobile and com-paratively more experienced. He has 19 NFL starts compared to three for Johnson and two for Manning.

But they're all novices compared to Marino, who will be starting his 216th game and isn't ready to take a secondary role.

"I think we're a team that is going to the playoffs," he says. "And I believe I'm going to be one of the main reasons for that."

Steelers (2-0) at Dolphins (2-0)

Line: Dolphins by 2 1/2 .

Last meeting: Steelers won, 24-17, at Miami on Nov. 25, 1996.

Key stats: Dolphins are 1-1 vs. Steelers and Cowher since Jimmy Johnson took over.

Worth watching: Miami pass-rushers Trace Armstrong and Jason Taylor each have three sacks. Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis coming off big game vs. Bears.

Outlook: This will be the first major test for both teams, who have failed to dominate so far. The difference could come at quarterback; Stewart has been ordinary (two TD passes, three interceptions), while Marino has been solid with two TDs and no interceptions.

Packers (2-0) at Bengals (1-1)
Today, 1 p.m., Ch. 29

Line: Packers by 6 1/2 .

Last meeting: Packers won, 24-10, at Green Bay on Dec. 3, 1997.

Key stats: Packers are 10-6 on the road the last two seasons.

Worth watching: Green Bay defensive end Reggie White, who briefly retired in the offseason, had three sacks a week ago, a sign that he still can be a force. New Bengals starter Neil O'Donnell is off to a fast start (72.1 percent completions).

Outlook: After solid victories over Detroit and Tampa Bay at home, the Packers hit the road for the first time with some problems. Dorsey Levens is out with a broken leg. Can Travis Jervey and Raymont Harris, still hobbling from a broken leg he suffered while with the Bears last season, take his place?

Broncos (2-0) at Raiders (1-1)
Today, 4:15, Ch. 4

Line: Broncos by 7.

Last meeting: Broncos won, 31-3, at Denver on Nov. 24, 1997.

Key stats: Broncos have won five of last six from the Raiders.

Worth watching: With John Elway hurt, Broncos will rely even more than usual on running back Terrell Davis. After slowing down late last season, Raiders' Napoleon Kaufman is back in stride -- he ran 80 yards for TD vs. Giants.

Outlook: Elway's sore hamstring won't keep him out of this one. Even if Bubby Brister sees action, Broncos should have enough to win, but the game is in Oakland, so it won't be easy.

Eagles (0-2) at Cardinals (0-2)
Tonight, 8:15, ESPN

Line: Cardinals by 5.

Last meeting: Cardinals won, 31-21, at Arizona on Nov. 2, 1997.

Key stats: Arizona has won four of its last five home games.

Worth watching: Will home opener shake Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer out of his slump? In his last three games at Sun Devil Stadium, Plummer has thrown nine touchdown passes.

Outlook: This thriller in the desert features two winless teams. It's no surprise that the Eagles are 0-2, but the Cardinals should have won one by now. If they don't beat the worst team in the league, the Cardinals' whole rebuilding program will be in question.

Cowboys (1-1) at Giants (1-1)
Monday, 8:15, Ch. 7

Line: Giants by 4.

Last meeting: Giants won, 20-7, at Dallas on Dec. 21, 1997.

Key stats: Giants have beaten Dallas three straight times.

Worth watching: Jason Garrett steps into the Monday Night Football spotlight as the Cowboys' starting quarterback. Giants quarterback Danny Kanell has four TD passes and two interceptions.

Outlook: Garrett, 26, is making only his third career start and his first since 1994. Once he shakes off the rust, he can hand off to Emmitt Smith, who gives the Cowboys the best chance of ending the Giants' streak of nine NFC East games without a loss (8-0-1).

Colts (0-2) at Jets (0-2)

Line: Jets by 8 1/2 .

Last meeting: Colts won, 22-14, at New York on Dec. 7, 1997.

Key stats: Colts have won six of last seven from the Jets.

Worth watching: Indy quarterback Peyton Manning getting a rough NFL baptism -- only two TD passes vs. six interceptions in first two games. Jets QB Glenn Foley may miss start with sore ribs. Vinny Testaverde would replace him.

Outlook: Foley or Testaverde . . . Testaverde or Foley . . . not one of the great issues of our time. It won't matter. After being one of the surprise teams of '97, Jets are 0-2. But they should get well against the Colts.

Oilers (1-1) at Patriots (1-1)

Line: Patriots by 7.

Last meeting: Oilers won, 28-14, at New England on Oct. 17, 1993.

Key stats: Patriots have won 13 of their last 17 at home.

Worth watching: New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe off to a great start, with three touchdown passes, no interceptions and passer rating of 100.9. Oilers' Eddie George has rushed for only 97 yards in two games.

Outlook: Oilers' defense could be one of the best, but the combination of Bledsoe passing and top draft choice Robert Edwards running will be too much.

Ravens (1-1) at Jaguars (2-0)

Line: Jaguars by 7.

Last meeting: Jaguars won, 29-27, at Jacksonville on Nov. 30, 1997.

Key stats: Jaguars have won all four games vs. Ravens, all by three points or fewer.

Worth watching: Jacksonville running back James Stewart has gained more than 100 yards in each of the first two games, and is second in the AFC with 218 yards. Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary leads solid defense with 2 1/2 sacks.

Outlook: Jim Harbaugh's finger injury may force Ravens to go with Eric Zeier at quarterback. Jaguars' passing combination of Mark Brunell to Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith should burn Ravens.

Chargers (2-0) at Chiefs (1-1)

Line: Chiefs by 11.

Last meeting: Kansas City won, 29-7, at San Diego on Dec. 14, 1997.

Key stats: Chiefs have won 21 of their last 26 in the AFC West.

Worth watching: Kansas City's leading receiver is their 1997 No. 1 draft choice, tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has 10 catches for an 11.4-yard average. Chargers rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf has poor passer rating of 65.0 with one touchdown pass and two interceptions, but Chargers are 2-0.

Outlook: Defense has carried the Chargers to victories over Buffalo and Tennessee and has a chance to do the same in this one. On Thursday, Leaf was treated for a viral infection, but he is expected to play.

Redskins (0-2) at Seahawks (2-0)

Line: Seahawks by 8.

Last meeting: Seahawks won, 27-20, at Washington on Nov. 19, 1995.

Key stats: Seattle leads the NFL with a turnover differential of plus five (Washington is minus five).

Worth watching: Big-play receivers can make a difference in this one. Seattle's Joey Galloway has eight catches for a 20.3-yard average and three touchdowns. Washington's Michael Westbrook has seven catches for 26-yard average but no scores.

Outlook: The Seahawks outscored Philadelphia and Arizona 71-14 to start the season, and now get a Washington team that has allowed 76 points in two games.

Lions (0-2) at Vikings (2-0)

Line: Vikings by 6 1/2 .

Last meeting: Lions won, 14-13, at Minnesota on Dec. 14, 1997.

Key stats: Lions beat Minnesota in both games last season.

Worth watching: Detroit goes with rookie quarterback Charlie Batch. Rookie Randy Moss leads Minnesota with 10 catches, 18.4-yard average and two touchdowns.

Outlook: Lions have finally had it with underachieving Scott Mitchell. They've turned to Eastern Michigan product Batch, whom they chose over Michigan's Brian Griese. It won't be an easy opener for him, but he'll have to make a few plays to prevent the Vikings from putting eight men on the line of scrimmage.

Bears (0-2) at Bucs (0-2)

Line: Bucs by 7 1/2 .

Last meeting: Bucs won, 31-15, in Tampa on Dec. 21, 1997.

Key stats: NFL teams are 4-2 when opening new stadiums in 1990s.

Worth watching: Tampa Bay running backs Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn haven't done much this season. Will this be the week? The Bears need quarterback Erik Kramer to make some big plays inside the Bucs' 20.

Outlook: For the second time this season (Baltimore preseason game was the first), the Bears meet their opposition in a new stadium. While Mike McCaskey hopes that keeps Chicagoans thinking about new stadiums, Dave Wannstedt probably hopes it distracts the Bucs. Both teams looking for first victory amid tough early schedules.

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