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SUPER BOWL CONTENDERS HAVE TESTS WAITING

If there is a consensus guess as to who the opponents will be in Super Bowl XXXIX, it's New England versus Philadelphia.

Of course, conventional wisdom is usually wrong when it comes to the NFL predictions. Who figured Carolina would make it last season? Or New England three years ago. Or St. Louis in 1999?

This weekend's games will give a clue as to whether the Patriots and Eagles are destined to meet in Jacksonville on Feb. 6.

The Patriots, winners of their last 21 games and an NFL-record 18 straight regular-season games, face their toughest test of the season -- at Pittsburgh (5-1). The Eagles are at home against Baltimore and the stingiest defense in the NFL.

Pittsburgh will be New England's toughest road opponent by far. The Pats two away games were at Arizona and Buffalo.

A key in the Pats-Steelers game will be how well rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh deals with the defensive tricks that New England coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel will cook up.

The Eagles had to go to overtime to win at Cleveland last week, allowing the Browns to come back three times. Baltimore won against the Bills, 20-6, last week despite gaining only 160 yards, the lowest total by a winning team in the NFL this season.

Philadelphia has been tested by good teams but not lately. The first three Eagles opponents -- New York Giants, Minnesota and Detroit -- are a combined 13-3 against the rest of the NFL. However, their last three opponents -- Chicago, Carolina and Cleveland -- are only 5-11 in other games.

The NFL's hottest passing combination -- Donovan McNabb to Terrell Owens -- is going against Ray Lewis, Deion Sanders, Chris McAlister, Ed Reed and the rest of the Baltimore defense. Owens shares the NFL with eight touchdown receptions. Baltimore's opponents are completing passes at only a 53.7 rate against the Ravens. That's second only to Tampa Bay's 51.3.

Game of the day

Patriots (6-0) at Steelers (5-1)

TV: Ch. 4, 4:15 p.m.

The line: Patriots favored by 3 points.

The scoop: New England's first regular-season visit to Heinz Field. Only other visit was in the 2001 playoffs when Drew Bledsoe relieved Tom Brady and threw key touchdown pass. . . . Pats have scored first in their last 11 victories. . . . Steelers have won four in a row since losing at Baltimore and are 3-0 at home.

Outlook: Tough day for Roethlisberger, but Steelers pull out 24-21 win.

Top attractions

Ravens (4-2) at Eagles (6-0)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Eagles by 7 1/2 .

The scoop: Would be more interesting if Ravens had an offense. . . . Philadelphia has never has been 7-0, even going back to the days of the Frankford Yellowjackets or Greasey Neale. . . . Ravens allowing only 3.44 yards per rush and 60.0 opposing passer rating, lowest in NFL.

Outlook: McNabb-Owens stymied, but Ravens have no attack. Philadelphia, 17-10.
Colts (4-2) at Chiefs (2-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Colts by 1.

The scoop: This one should be as wild as the offensive display the teams put on in AFC playoffs in January -- 842 yards in 38-31 Indianapolis victory. . . . Colts rolled up 446 yards and lost at home to Jacksonville. Chiefs had 540 yards in rout of Atlanta. K.C.'s 56-point total was no fluke. Six of NFL-record eight rushing TDs capped drives of 50 or more yards. Shortest was 16. . . . K.C.'s Priest Holmes leads NFL in rushing with 690 yards.

Outlook: Holmes riddles squabbling Colts, 45-38.
Giants (4-2) at Vikings (5-1)
TV: Ch. 29, 1 p.m.

The line: Vikings by 7.

The scoop: Giants upset unbeaten Vikings in Metrodome a year ago. New York coming off disappointing home loss to Detroit. Vikes won at suddenly punchless Titans, 20-3. . . . Minnesota has rolled up 300 or more yards of offense in its last 35 games. In fact, Vikes have been over 400 in five of six games so far. QB Daunte Culpepper has league-best 19 TD passes, eight to Randy Moss, who left last week's game early with hamstring injury.

Outlook: Bet it was fun around Tom Coughlin's camp last week after Giants lost. Minnesota, 27-24.
Falcons (5-2) at Broncos (5-2)
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Broncos by 7.

The scoop: Both teams coming off dreadful performances. Overrated Falcons were embarrassed, 56-10, at Kansas City while Broncos were flat in 23-10 loss at Cincinnati. . . . Ex-Bill Peerless Price caught a whopping two passes for 21 yards in K.C. last week. He's still looking for his first TD catch of the season. . . . Denver chop-blocking style of line blocking claimed another victim Monday when Bengals tackle Tony Williams had his ankle broken. Broncos opponents have complained about this for years.

Outlook: Michael Vick breathless in Mile High. Denver, 31-17.

Best of the rest

Jaguars (5-2) at Texans (3-3)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Texans by 1 1/2 .

The scoop: Jags own half-game lead over Colts in AFC South. They may have a shot to widen the gap today, but winning in Houston is not easy. Texans are 1-2 at home, but one of the losses was in OT to Vikings' offensive machine.

Outlook: Houston stays in playoff contention, 20-17.
Bengals (2-4) at Titans (2-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Titans by 3.

The scoop: Bengals were supposed to be better and Titans were supposed to have a shot at AFC title. Both have disappointed. . . . Cincinnati coming off strong all-around effort in Monday night home victory over Denver. . . . Tennessee held to a field goal and just 243 yards at Minnesota.

Outlook: Tennessee crowd will rattle Carson Palmer. Titans, 20-10.
Packers (3-4) at Redskins (2-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Packers by 1 1/2 .

The scoop: Redskins coach Joe Gibbs is 26-5 all time against the NFC North teams. . . . Despite 2-4 record, Redskins are leading NFL in total defense and rushing defense, but they have faced weak Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Chicago offenses. . . . Packers have rolled up 79 points in winning last two after embarrassing home loss to Titans.

Outlook: Brett Favre exposes Washington "D." Packers, 27-13.
Panthers (1-5) at Seahawks (3-3)

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Seahawks by 8.

The scoop: Carolina has big problems with injuries on O-line and running back, and suddenly John Fox doesn't look like such a genius. . . . Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck is 10-1 in last 11 home starts with 17 TDs and five INTs.

Outlook: Overrated Seahawks soar, 20-10.
Raiders (2-5) at Chargers (4-3)

Kickoff: 4:15 p.m.

The line: Chargers by 6.

The scoop: Drew Brees outproducing that other Drew (nine TDs, three INTs, 95.5 rating). New WR Keenan McCardell broke in with five catches for 65 yards last week. . . . Raiders QB Kerry Collins has only four TD passes to go with nine INTs.

Outlook: Chargers serious about a playoff push. Bolts, 24-16.
Dolphins (1-6) at Jets (5-1)

TV: Ch. 7, Monday, 9 p.m.

The line: Jets by 7.

The scoop: Jets can't believe they lost at New England last week, but everybody says that after they play the Patriots. New York had worst offensive output of season (268 yards, 7 points) in Foxboro. . . . Only 52 of Chad Pennington's 126 completions have gone to Jets WRs. . . . Dolphins coming off big home win over St. Louis.

Outlook: If Fiedler doesn't turn it over, Fish win, 17-13.
Lions (4-2) at Cowboys (2-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Cowboys by 3.

The scoop: Lions have only four turnovers all season. Drew Bledsoe had five just last week. That explains why Detroit is 4-2 despite league's worst offense. . . . Cowboys have no running game and have lost last three.

Outlook: Cowboys due. Dallas, 23-17.
49ers (1-5) at Bears (1-5)

TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Bears by 1 1/2 .

The scoop: How can the Bears be favored with Craig Krenzel handling the quarterbacking? . . . Niners coming off bye week after throwing a scare into Jets.

Outlook: Why are they punishing ESPN? Niners, 10-0.

Dog of the day

Cardinals (2-4) at Bills (1-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Bills by 3.

The scoop: Bills only NFL team without a rushing TD. Cards are only team to not allow one. . . . Arizona leads league with 18 takeaways and the Bills are a turnover machine.

Outlook: Bring the No-Doz. Buffalo, 10-6.
e-mail: mnorthrop@buffnews.com