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GAMES AGAINST NFC FOES COULD DECIDE AFC RACES

Time, expansion and realignment has watered down what was left of any sense of rivalry between the American Conference and the National Conference of the NFL.

If you are 35 or younger, you probably don't remember pro football before the 1970 merger of the American Football League and the National Football League.

Which conference is best? It used to matter.

Overall, the AFC enjoys a 23-20-1 advantage over the NFC so far, and two of the three most competitive races are in the AFC East and AFC West (three-way tie for first). The NFC North is an embarrassment.

On the other hand, the NFC boasts the teams with the league's three best records -- Tampa Bay (9-2), Philadelphia (8-3) and Green Bay (8-3). Also, the strongest division is the NFC South. Tampa Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina are 17-6 in games outside the division, best in the league.

Division and conference games carry more weight, but some of the tight races might ultimately be decided by how teams fare in remaining games against the other conference.

For example, the Dolphins and Jets each have two games left against the NFC North. One of the Jets' two is against Green Bay at home.

Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the AFC North each have a game with lowly Carolina. The Steelers, however, also must go to Tampa and Cleveland gets Atlanta at home.

In the AFC South, Indianapolis and Tennessee each have a game against the Giants. The Titans-at-Giants game is one three interconference games on today's schedule. Carolina goes to Cleveland and Arizona plays at Kansas City in the other two.

Game of the Day

Jets at Raiders
TV: Ch. 7, Monday, 9 p.m.

The line: Raiders favored by 6 1/2 points.

The scoop: Jets on a four-game run and have not allowed a point (30-0) in the fourth quarter of those games. Raiders have won three since their four-game slide. Teams played back-to-back games in Oakland last season. Jets won season finale, 24-22. but Raiders won wild-card playoff game the next week, 38-24. . . . Game also matches two hot quarterbacks. Rich Gannon of the Raiders leads the league in pass attempts (463), completions (319) and yards (3,535) and is on pace to set NFL records for completions (463) and passing yards (5,142). Jets first-year starter Chad Pennington is 5-2 with a 108.8 passer rating since taking over.

Outlook: Jets (9-3 under Herm Edwards) are not afraid of the road. Oakland, 34-31.

Top attractions

Buccaneers (9-2) at Saints (7-4)
TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m.

The line: No line.

The scoop: Bucs have won four straight since losing at Philadelphia, including last week's stuffing of the Packers. . . . New Orleans was in good shape before losing three of last four, including home losses to Atlanta and Cleveland. Jim Haslett's defense has allowed 281 points, and no opponent has been held under 20. . . . New Orleans' last five games are against opponents with a combined 12-32 record.

Outlook: Saints should be desperate while Bucs are coming off an emotional high against Green Bay. Saints, 21-10.
Broncos (7-4) at Chargers (7-4)
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Broncos by 3.

The scoop: Barring a tie, one of the two will drop out of share of first in AFC West. Both showing signs of fading. Chargers have dropped three of last four, and the win was a gift from the Niners in OT. All three of Denver's losses were at home on prime-time TV.

Outlook: Chargers' last hurrah, 21-19.
Titans (6-5) at Giants (6-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Giants by 3.

The scoop: Loser could be in trouble in its division race. Both teams coming off disappointing losses. Titans lost, 13-12, at Baltimore. Giants played horribly and were upset by the expansion Texans in Houston and lost ground to first-place Eagles. . . . Last time the Titans (nee Houston Oilers) faced Giants at Giants Stadium was 1991.

Outlook: Big Blue wakes up, 17-12.
Rams (5-6) at Eagles (8-3)
TV: Ch. 29, 4 p.m.

The line: No Line.

The scoop: Rams absolutely, positively need to win this one to stay within reach of San Francisco in NFC West. . . . A.J. Feely makes first career start at QB for Eagles with Koy Detmer out (dislocated left elbow). . . . Big question is whether RB Marshall Faulk is ready to play for Rams. . . . Rams won at Veterans Stadium, 20-17, in overtime Sept. 9, 2001. St. Louis coach Mike Martz is 2-0 against the Eagles.

Outlook: Rams will have to stand up to battering from tough Eagles defense to win, 24-23,
Dolphins (7-4) at Bills (5-6)
TV: Ch. 4, 1 p.m.

The line: Dolphins by 2 1/2 .

The scoop: Miami thinks that with RB Ricky Williams the Dolphins are now equipped to win late season games in cold weather, while the Bills, with Drew Bledsoe, are more like the Dolphins used to be with Dan Marino. We'll see. . . . Difference will probably be that Miami is confident and upbeat, while Bills look -- and play -- dead.

Outlook: Buffalo makes too many mistakes -- penalties, missed tackles, missed coverages, wrong or poorly run pass routes, dropped passes -- to beat anybody. Miami, 24-7.
Steelers (6-4-1) at Jaguars (5-6)
Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Steelers by 3.

The scoop: Believe it or not, Pittsburgh has given up more points in the last four games (106) than the Bills (103). . . . Steelers have Cleveland Browns breathing down their backs in AFC North and could fall out of first place by a half-game with a loss. . . . Kordell Stewart probably will start at QB for Steelers. . . Jaguars are 6-1 all-time at home against the Steelers.

Outlook: Home underdogs, Jags need win to stay in AFC South race. Jax, 28-24.

Best of the rest

Falcons (7-3-1) at Vikings (3-8)
Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Falcons by 3 1/2 .

The scoop: Don't you wish Wade Phillips was running the Bills' defense again? Wade's Atlanta "D" posted its second shutout of the season and third no-TD game. Falcons are unbeaten (5-0-1) in their last six games and keeping Tampa Bay from walking away with the NFC South. . . . Atlanta QB Michael Vick leads league with 0.8 interception perception and rushing yards for quarterbacks with 475. . . . Vikings have allowed 302 points and at least 21 in all but one game. However, Minnesota is second in the NFL in offense.

Outlook: Fast track favors Vick, but crowd noise and Vikings offense make it a struggle. Atlanta, 31-28.
Seahawks (4-7) at 49ers (7-4)
Kickoff: 4:15 p.m.

The line: 49ers by 9.

The scoop: Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck had career game against Kansas City last week as Seahawks struggle to save coach Mike Holmgren's job. . . . On Monday Night in home loss to Eagles, 49ers acted like they own a safe lead in NFC West. Maybe they do. . . . Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander coming on. He had season-best 145 yards rushing against Chiefs. Niners may be without backup RB Kevin Barlow.

Outlook: Seahawks make Niners work for it. San Francisco, 27-20.
Texas (3-8) at Colts (7-4)
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Colts by 11.

The scoop: Indy humbled Texans in Houston, 23-3, on Sept. 22. . . . Texans' last two road games were 21-19 win at Jacksonville and 10-17 loss at Tennessee.

Outlook: Dom Capers comes up with defensive tricks to keep Colts off their game for a while. Colts, 21-13.
Cardinals (4-7) at Chiefs (5-6)
Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Chiefs by 10.

The scoop: Two teams on downslide. Cardinals have lost five in a row and will miss the playoffs once again. Chiefs lost two of last three and were outplayed in the one win against Buffalo. . . . K.C. RB Priest Holmes gained 307 scrimmage yards (197 rushing, 110 receiving) in loss at Seattle last week. That's fourth highest total in NFL history.

Outlook: Cards show a little pulse. Chiefs, 31-24.
Bears (3-8) at Packers (8-3)
Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Packers by 9 1/2 .

The scoop: Overrated . . . overrated . . . overrated. Green Bay folded in Minnesota and went downhill after getting the first score in 21-7 loss at Tampa Bay. . . . Bears, with a huge assist from Detroit coach Marty Mornhinweg, ended eight-game losing streak with overtime win over the Lions. . . . Bears' Chris Chandler is last visiting quarterback to win at Lambeau. He led Atlanta to 23-20 win last season. . . . If Packers QB Brett Favre throws for a touchdown it will make it 22 games in a row for him against the Bears, the second-longest streak in NFL history. The record is 24 by Dan Marino against the Jets.

Outlook: Too much hatred for this to be one-sided. Packers, 17-10.
Ravens (5-6) at Bengals (1-10)
Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Ravens by 3.

The scoop: Lately, Bengals have shown offensive punch -- 130 points in last five games after scoring only 51 in first six. QB Jon Kitna has 103.8 passer rating in last five games with 10 TDs and 3 INTs. . . . Baltimore has won eight of last nine against Cincinnati including 38-27 win in Baltimore three weeks ago. . . . Ex-Bengal Jeff Blake starts at QB for Ravens. He's 2-1 since taking over.

Outlook: A bit of a dog game. Bengals can't go 1-15 can they? Cincinnati, 17-15.

Dog game of the day

Panthers (3-8) at Browns (6-5)
Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Browns by 7 1/2 .

The scoop: Panthers have no luck. Carolina started 3-0 under new coach John Fox, but reality struck. . . . Panthers rank sixth in the league in defense, refuting the old adage that "defense wins championships" but have crumbled in last month. . . . Browns have 129 points in last five games despite one of the least productive running attacks (31st) in the league.

Outlook: Should be a toasty on the shores of Lake Erie. Browns, 27-14.
e-mail: mnorthrop@buffnews.com

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