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NEW YEAR WILL RING IN WITH COWBOYS COVERING

The end is near -- followed closely by the playoffs.

It's sad but true. While we have been frittering away another National Football League season, a year, a decade, a century and a millennium have run their course.

No one knows what to expect when the year 2000 rings in. Funny, that's the same feeling I have every week after I make my picks.

So just in case we lose contact due to a Y2K glitch, I wanted to share with you some of the predictions I made, unbeknownst to anyone, before the season began. I have opened the envelopes and found I did remarkably well. Here are some of the highlights:

Neither team from last year's Super Bowl will return.

Old stars will fade, new stars will rise, but bad officiating will continue.

Many players will suffer broken bones.

Others will be busted by the police.

A team from Florida will win its division.

The leading passer will be a quarterback.

A lot of kickers will miss a lot of field goals.

For every team that wins a game, another team will lose.

I think I should quit while I'm ahead and focus on this week's games.

The week's most fascinating game is between the Giants and the Cowboys in Dallas. Both teams are 7-8, but the winner will make the playoffs with an 8-8 record. That team will be the Cowboys, who are 6-1 at home and 5-1 against the spread as home favorites. They will top the six-point spread.

Staying in the NFC, we turn to Detroit at Minnesota. Both the Lions and Vikings have clinched wild-card playoff berths. That means the Lions can lose this week and become the second 8-8 team in the playoffs. A win would give the Lions a sweep against the Vikings. With both teams at 9-7, the Lions would get to play a wild-card game at home. With incentive like that, the Lions are a wise choice as 7 1/2 -point underdogs.

In the AFC, Jacksonville has run into a Y2K glitch. The Jaguars will have to play this week without quarterback Mark Brunell, who was injured in last week's humiliating loss to Tennessee. Because of that loss, the Jaguars need to win at home against Cincinnati, not a very daunting challenge, to capture first place in the AFC Central. Even as 8 1/2 -point favorites, the Jaguars are a great bet.

The Bills, as two-point underdogs against Indianapolis, are worth a look. Here is what I figured out: The Colts have won 11 games in a row. To a conservative coach like Jim Mora, that has to be scary. This would be the right time to lose one and take the pressure off for the playoffs. For the Bills, a win is crucial to establish some kind of playoff momentum.

The tangible thing in the Bills' favor is the weather. You saw how the Colts, a dome team, struggled in the cold of Cleveland last week. It won't get any easier for them this week. That's why I'm taking the Bills and the two points.

BEST BET: Tennessee is a long shot to beat out the Jaguars for first place in the AFC Central, but the Titans are a sure thing to stuff the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

The Titans showed last week that they will be a factor in the playoffs. They have dealt the Jaguars their only two losses and are one of only two teams with a win over St. Louis, the class of the NFC. As only 3 1/2 -point favorites, the Titans are one of the best bets of the season.

BEST OF THE REST: In two games with playoff significance, Kansas City will beat visiting Oakland and cover the 4 1/2 -point spread. The win will make the Chiefs the AFC West champions, because Seattle will lose on the road to the Jets. The Jets won't be back in the playoffs this season, but they are playing the spoiler role. The Jets are a solid choice, even as 1 1/2 favorites.

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