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I think I have this end-of-the-century NFL figured out.

You know how a considerable segment of society is frightened to death about the negative possibilities of Y2K at midnight Friday? How there is a fear that up may become down and inside may become outside when the computers signal the year as "00" even though William McKinley is no longer our president?

My theory is that something like that already happened to the NFL the weekend after Labor Day, when the 1999 season began.

How else do you explain the Jacksonville Jaguars, with home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs at stake Sunday, going into Tennessee and getting flogged, 41-14? Or Indianapolis, one of this year's wonder teams, barely scratching out a one-point, at-the-gun victory over expansion Cleveland? Or Oakland, a 45-0 victor over powerful Tampa Bay last week, losing a must-win game to San Diego?

Go figure Dallas. The Cowboys were on the verge of becoming an international power when this decade began but Friday they lost to pathetic New Orleans and finished their road schedule 1-7. The early '90s was about powerhouse NFL teams. The '99 season is about NFL-Y2K.

All three of the teams fighting for the final playoff spot in the NFC lost last weekend. That's grace under pressure, 1999 edition.

Then there are the Buffalo Bills.

Sunday, the Bills went to New England inspired by the reality that a victory would put them a little cat's footstep away from the playoffs. All they had to do was walk over the cadaver known as the New England Patriots, a team that meekly surrendered its playoff desires to woebegone Philadelphia last week. Unfortunately, Buffalo's offensive line was so uninspired that it allowed itself to be dominated by the cadaver's defensive front for most of the game.

I have to keep looking to the NFL standings to remind myself that the Bills are a 10-5 team. That was especially true watching quarterback Doug Flutie foundering for 50 minutes or so, committing one of the more fundamental errors a passer can make by launching throws off his back foot. Flutie probably has corrected a generation of kids in various football camps for doing just that.

Even when Flutie got hot down the stretch and began the completion streak which finally led to Buffalo's gift-wrapped, 13-10 overtime victory, he was passing in that faulty manner. When he finally began connecting with his wide receivers, Peerless Price and Eric Moulds, leading to the Bills' only touchdown of the game, his offerings were like NBA alley-oop passes. You kept waiting for the resulting slam dunk.

Then, in the overtime period, good form suddenly reappeared. Flutie started delivering the ball while stepping into the throw, his passes picked up more zip and the chains started moving.

How to explain such strange goings-on?

It's the times. If you tuned into an NFL game this season the halftime score might have been 6-6, or, 3-3, or on one occasion no score at all. Few teams, other than St. Louis and Indy, are consistent. In Buffalo's case, of the 13 Bills teams which enjoyed seasons of double-digit victories, this one was the weaker and more erratic offensively. The Bills need to score 11 points against Indianapolis on Sunday to reach 300, 100 fewer than they scored last season.

For this we needed luxury suites?

Maybe Tony Dungy, the Tampa Bay coach, has the correct philosophy for the NFL in the 21st century. What Dungy tries to instill in his teams is to play defense, maintain control of the football, be willing to punt a lot, be accurate on field goals and be happy living on the edge.

In their 24 seasons the Buccaneers never have qualified for a Super Bowl. They are unlikely participants this season. So are the Bills, unless a respectable offense suddenly materializes out of a rabbit hole in Orchard Park.

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