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It's going to come down to the Dec. 28 Monday night game in Miami. Seems that the fate of the New England Patriots always depends on some kind of shoot-out in Miami at the end of the season. Two years ago they had to win there in the AFC Championship Game to get to the Super Bowl. In 1986 they had to defeat the Dolphins in the season's last Monday-nighter to make the playoffs. They put together two long fourth-quarter drives to pull out that one.

New England had thrown the ball well, but on that last scoring march, which covered 86 yards, the Pats kept to the ground, of all places, to stay alive. You may recall that they ranked last in the league in rushing in '86. They did it on memory in Miami against one of the NFL's softer rushing defenses, but hey, they did it. Under coach Ray Berry. New England has become a team that knows how to win, and in the process, it has transformed its image.

On paper the Patriots have one major problem—the offensive line, which last year couldn't figure out how to get along without John Hannah. New England has spent two of its three most recent first-round draft picks on linemen. No. 1 in '85, center Trevor Matich was being groomed to replace 33-year-old Pete Brock, but he broke his foot in camp. This year's top pick, tackle Bruce Armstrong, has had shoulder problems. Left tackle Brian Holloway had off-season shoulder and knee surgery. The Pats did trade for Tampa Bay's Sean Farrell to fill a guard spot, but he was moved to tackle through necessity.

New England backs averaged only 2.9 yards per carry last-fall. Sacks allowed rose from 39 to 47, and quarterback Tony Eason was knocked out of action twice. The offense was saved by wideout Stanley Morgan, who made his 10th NFL season his best.

The Patriots had plenty of problems, but they won the division anyway, and I think they will again. Why? The AFC East is fairly soft. The Jets are all banged up, and Miami is still unproved defensively, a department in which New England has been competent for several years. The Pats will be even better if end Kenneth Sims makes a successful recovery from back surgery and if Toby Williams develops into the quick-striking noseguard they hope he will be.

Nineteen eighty-six was a tough year for immortals. None of three coaches ticketed for the Hall of Fame—Tom Landry of Dallas, Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh and Don Shula of Miami—had winning records. Neither did the Raiders' Tom Flores, whose club keeps putting out those "winningest" press releases. What it all means is that monumental stature as a head coach or as a successful organization does not guarantee a place at the top every year. The game is too fast, its changes come too quickly. Weaknesses can't be covered the way they used to be.

The Miami Dolphins' weaknesses are obvious, and not even owner Joe Robbie's new stadium will hide them. Miami can't run the ball (25th in the league last year), and it can't play defense (tied for 26th). These are pretty basic flaws for any team with aspirations, but because the Dolphins' strengths are so dazzling, they wound up 8-8 last season instead of 4-12.

Dan Marino is the highest-rated quarterback of all time (95.2). Dwight Stephenson is one of the two or three greatest centers in history. Both are in their prime. So are the twin Marks, Duper and Clayton, at the wideouts. So is line coach John Sandusky. Give the guy credit. He inherited a unit loaded with problems, and Miami wound up allowing the fewest sacks (17) in the NFL last season.

The defensive coordinator, Chuck Studley, has been demoted to linebacker coach, and to replace him Shula brought in Tom Olivadotti from Cleveland, a cerebral type in the Bill Arnsparger mold. But the basic worry on defense is in the muscle area—the middle. John Offerdahl, the inside linebacker on the weak side, had a brilliant rookie season in '86, but he looked small and battered at the Pro Bowl. In the first exhibition game he went down for 10 weeks with a torn bicep. The Dolphins are also in trouble at noseguard. Bob Baumhower, whose body is worn down from too many years of playing the position without relief, was a camp holdout. Mike Charles collapsed from fatigue the first day of practice and was cut. Brian Sochia, who was picked up from Houston last year, looked great early in the preseason. "Then Stephenson reported," Shula says. The top two draft picks, defensive end John Bosa (another holdout) and linebacker Rick Graf, will provide outside help. Rookie halfback Troy Stradford, a dazzling little runner, provides flash, not crash.

Something is strange and unsettling about the New York Jets these days. Last December, with a 10-1 start fading into oblivion and the Steelers in town, panic set in, and the wounded were rushed back into action. Noseguard Joe Klecko was sent in one-legged. The idea was to test the stability of his left knee. It wasn't stable. He's due back in November. Right tackle Reggie McElroy tested his right knee. It flunked. October is his projected return date. Defensive end Marty Lyons gave both shoulders the test. The team says he'll be back "sometime in the fall." Maybe.

Then there's the case of quarterback Ken O'Brien's tired arm. We were assured that it was all right, but it died on him late in the season. Coach Joe Walton gave him a vote of confidence and then benched him. The players scratched their heads.

And there's the matter of money. The Jets have the highest payroll in the NFL. They can sign the big-money guys, but where do they cut costs? At the $150,000-$200,000 level. They play hardball with guys like cornerback Bobby Humphrey, who, besides tying for second in the AFC in kickoff returns, unbelievably tied Klecko for the team lead in sacks with four. Humphrey made $130,000 last year. Two starters, fullback Tony Paige and linebacker Rusty Guilbeau, made even less.

O.K., with all their injuries last year, including a crippler to Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Mehl, the Jets rallied around backup Pat Ryan and were a tick away from beating Cleveland in the playoffs. The going will be rough this year. Backup noseguard Tom Baldwin broke his foot and is out until October. That leaves the spot to 35-year-old Derland Moore, who's the oldest noseguard in football. Mark Gastineau, whose sack production fell to two in 1986, has shed 35 pounds and is down to 255. Teams will run at him. His best place is outside, as a wide pass-rusher. Lacking any kind of rush last fall, the defense finished last in the NFL against the pass and tied for 26th overall.

It might be November before the Jets get themselves together. Before then they face New England, Dallas, Miami, Washington, plus Pittsburgh at Three Rivers. November might be too late.

The Buffalo Bills are spending money. Last year they gave quarterback Jim Kelly an $8 million contract, and he rewarded them by breaking two club passing records and throwing more than twice as many touchdown passes (22) as a trio of Buffalo signal callers did in '85. The Bills paid their top draft selection, linebacker Shane Conlan, $1.7 million over four years, and the contracts given to the second-round picks, cornerbacks Nate Odomes and Roland Mitchell, were generous, too. Conlan is expected to start on the left side and Odomes at right corner. Mitchell could be the nickelback. Veterans' salaries also went up 20% this season. Nice things happen when the club finally turns a profit after three years in the red. Further, the Bills are selling more tickets than ever, thanks to Kelly's magic.

In short, Buffalo is moving in the right direction. The Bills traded down in the first round of the draft, gambling that they would get the guy they wanted all along, which they did, and they got Odomes with the extra choice. New coach Marv Levy brought in Kansas City defensive coordinator Walt Corey and old pro Ted Marchibroda, who will handle the quarterbacks.

Aside from Kelly, superstars are scarce in Buffalo, unless you count defensive end Bruce Smith, who had 15 sacks last year. He has trimmed his body-fat count to a cornerbacklike 7.5%. The major problem, though, is the schedule. Buffalo faces only four teams that had losing records in '86.

Gary Hogeboom is no dope. The former Dallas quarterback came off injured reserve and led the Indianapolis Colts to three straight wins to close out last season, thereby saving himself from having to compete with Vinny Testaverde for a starting job at Tampa Bay. You know who would win that one. Those three victories, the only ones of the season, coincided with the arrival of coach Ron Meyer.

So the Colts will try to do it with Hogeboom; wideout Billy Brooks; a running attack without big-league runners; a line with one star who's established (center Ray Donaldson)', one who's rising (guard Ron Solt) and one who's slipping (tackle Chris Hinton); and a defense that has a good old pro in free safety Nesby Glasgow and a couple of good young ones in end Jon Hand and linebacker Duane Bickett. No. 1 draft choice Cornelius Bennett, the Lawrence Taylor clone out of Alabama, is slated to be the linchpin of the defense, but the team that has made a fortune from its sweetheart deal with Indianapolis had trouble getting up the bucks to sign him. A short history of the Colts' four previous No. 1 picks: In 1986, Hand signed the day before their first exhibition game; in 1985 Bickett signed three days before their first exhibition; in 1984 cornerback Leonard Coleman went to the USFL, returning in '85; in 1983 John Elway was traded to Denver.

That this franchise is thriving financially is one of the great injustices in sports. But even the Indy faithful are starting to get the picture. The Colts went into July with 3,000 season tickets unsold, a far cry from the honeymoon, when 150,000 fans clamored for 60,000 seats. Call it justice.




Marino's magic arm, which accounted for 44 of the Dolphins' 56 TDs in '86, is the main reason they were 8-8 instead of 4-12.



Craig James led New England's anemic running attack with 427 yards.



The beleaguered Jets D badly needs Lester Lyles (with ball) to keep improving.