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CRISIS IN DENVER COULD HELP BILLS IN AFC TITLE CHASE

Column as I see 'em:

-- The Bills should be uplifted by the crisis in Denver, where Bubby Brister has lost the starting quarterback job to second-year man Brian Griese. Brister is fuming; the press is accusing coach Mike Shanahan of making him a scapegoat, and Broncos players are already talking about how much they miss John Elway's leadership. The two-time defending Super Bowl champs are ripe for a fall, and the AFC title chase seems more wide open than ever.

-- Experts figured Sammy Sosa would come back to Earth after having the year of his life in 1998. Surely, he'd tail off after hitting .308 with 66 homers and 158 RBIs. Well, Sosa, who hit his 56th homer Wednesday, is on pace for 69 homers and 150 RBIs. He's hitting .303. He's on pace for 419 total bases. Last year, he had 416, the most by any player in 50 years.

Isn't it time to consider that Sosa might be the greatest power hitter in the game today, not Mark McGwire?

-- The NHL can't seem to control player salaries, so teams are trimming budgets with cheap coaches. There will be five first-time head coaches in the league this year. But the Sabres should resist the urge to play hardball with Lindy Ruff and give him the extension he deserves.

-- If Antowain Smith continues to struggle running behind a fullback in the two-back set, the Bills coaches ought to show some flexibility and try a one-back offense. A three-receiver alignment might be a better use of Doug Flutie's skills, too, especially if Peerless Price shows he can make plays as a rookie.

-- I wish Darryl Strawberry the best in his latest comeback, but the Yankees need to stick with Ricky Ledee as the left fielder. He's the future. In a recent 35-game stretch, he hit .357 with seven homers and 25 RBIs, raising his average from .203 to .306. And he proved last year he could produce in postseason.

-- Billy Irwin, the pride of Niagara Falls, Ont., is the No. 1 ranked contender for the IBF world lightweight boxing crown. He's the mandatory challenger for the new champ, Paul Spadafora of Pittsburgh. Under IBF rules, Spadafora must fight him by Feb. 20. Irwin's next scheduled fight is Sept. 24, an ESPN2 bout against Edward Rosquita Barrios of Colombia.

-- Arizona's Randy Johnson is the clear favorite for the National League Cy Young Award. His ERA (2.47) is a full half-run better than the runner-up, Shane Reynolds. He has 315 strikeouts. No other NL pitcher has 180. He leads the NL in complete games and innings. Johnson is 14-9, but if he had decent run support, he'd have 18 or 19 wins.

-- Let's see: Richard Williams predicts his daughters, Serena and Venus, will meet in the U.S. Open finals. Martina Hingis says all the Williamses have big mouths and suggests they'll fold under the pressure. All I know is that if Hingis meets either Williams sister, I'm glued to the TV set. It's too bad men's tennis can't have ugly rivalries like this.

-- Is Terry Glenn the MVP of the AFC East? During Glenn's injury-riddled career, the Patriots are 23-11 with him in the lineup and 7-7 without him. I'd be remiss if I failed to report that Glenn says he is in the shape of his life this summer.

-- Anaheim reliever Troy Percival ripped his teammate, Mo Vaughn, for not participating in a bench-clearing brawl the other night. Last month, the Yanks' Chad Curtis chided Derek Jeter for the same thing. Vaughn and Jeter should be commended for rejecting this goofy, macho baseball custom.

-- Let's hope Maple Grove's Randall Secky has a more useful career than the last local high school star who played football at UB -- David Hinson.

-- The Orioles are hopelessly buried in the AL playoff race, so Albert Belle should begin one of his meaningless late-season hitting streaks any day now.

-- Jerry Krause is no fool. The Bulls' general manager hasn't jumped into the NBA free-agent fray because he's waiting for next year's crop. Will Perdue, who re-signed with Chicago after getting a ring in San Antonio, said Krause could actually sign Tim Duncan and Grant Hill a year from now.

-- Jim Brown's wife, Monique, testified this week that she was only lying when she called 911 and said her husband had beaten her, choked her, and threatened to kill her. Really, who could imagine a Hall of Fame running back ever doing such a thing?

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