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UNBEATEN ATLANTA DUE FOR A FALL IN 'FRISCO

Two undefeated teams from the same division going head to head sounds like a major matchup, doesn't it? When one of those teams is Atlanta, and the other is San Francisco playing at home as an 11-point favorite, the game loses some of its competitive edge.

But it's the best the National Football League has to offer in a week when the Monday night game is 1-2 Tampa Bay at 0-3 Detroit and the Sunday night special features 1-2 Cincinnati at 1-2 Baltimore. Welcome to NFL '98.

In San Francisco, the 49ers are playing their first division game of the season. Both the 49ers and Falcons are coming off bye weeks and are generally healthy. When we last saw the 49ers, they were putting on a Monday Night Football clinic against Washington.

The 49ers' defense has flaws, but it's doubtful Chris Chandler and the Falcons will take advantage. They struggled to defeat two weak teams, Carolina and Philadelphia, in their first two games.

The recent history of this series is all in the 49ers' favor. They won at home against Atlanta, 34-7, last year as 14-point favorites, 39-17 in 1996 as 12-point favorites, 41-10 in 1995 as 13-point favorites and 50-14 in 1994 as 13-point favorites.

You get the idea. The Niners, giving 11 points, are a solid choice.

Best bet

Cincinnati at Baltimore doesn't jump out at you as a candidate for NFL Classic Games. But it intrigues me for three reasons.

First, the Ravens are making a wise decision and giving the ball to quarterback Eric Zeier from the start of the game, replacing an unsteady Jim Harbaugh. Playing as a backup, Zeier ranks fifth among AFC quarterbacks with 42 completions out of 72 passes for 602 yards, three touchdowns and only one interception.

Second, despite their 1-2 record, the Ravens have an impressive road win against the Jets.

Third, few games have such strong signs pointing to one team. This is the Ravens' second home game of the year. They are 5-0 against the spread in their second home game dating back to their last three years in Cleveland. They also are favored for the first time this season. They are 7-1 against the spread in that situation. The Ravens (Browns) also are 6-1 against the spread at home vs. the Bengals the last seven years. The Ravens won at home last year against the Bengals, 23-10.

If you add all those things up, you can see why I like the Ravens as a five-point home favorite.

Best of the rest

Pittsburgh let a lot of people down last week, including me and Bill Cowher. Their whole season is unimpressive. Seattle is 3-0 and has outscored opponents, 95-28. So why are the Steelers favored? They are coming home after a loss and failing to cover the point spread in two straight games. In that situation, they are 15-2 against the spread in their next game. They were embarrassed last week and will be at their best this week. The Seahawks ran up their 3-0 record against the pathetic NFC East. This is their first conference game. That's why I'm taking the Steelers and giving the 3 1/2 points. . . . Another puzzler is why 0-3 Indianapolis is only a one-point underdog against 2-0 New Orleans. This is the Colts' first game against a non-division team. What a relief. They will respond with a victory. . . . Ryan Leaf last week played one of the worst games ever by an NFL quarterback. He will turn over a new leaf at home after a two-game road trip. The Chargers are 2-1 and can beat the favored Giants, who are 1-15 against the spread as road favorites since 1990. Take the Chargers and the 1 point. . . . Can the Cowboys win again without Troy Aikman and with Emmitt Smith sitting out the whole game? Don't expect them to play at anywhere near the level they did Monday night. Oakland always has a letdown after playing Denver. So this game is a downer for both teams. I like the underdog in that case and will take the Raiders plus five.

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