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Original Issue


I'm curious to see what kind of a defense Jacksonville puts up
against Pittsburgh on Monday night. Will the Jaguars load up to
stop Jerome Bettis and take their chances against Kordell
Stewart's arm? Seems logical enough, since Bettis killed the
Redskins two weeks ago, and so far the few passes that Stewart
has connected on haven't bothered anybody. His 8.9 yards per
completion is the third lowest in the NFL.

Will the Jaguars send the blitzers after him and try to force
turnovers, hoping that he doesn't slash 'em with his scrambles,
or will they drop their defenders into an exotic array of
coverages, figuring they can take advantage of Stewart's
inexperience? Will the Steelers let Slash go deep and create
some shock effect? Oh, yes, an orgy of strategy is in store, and
the snapper is that sooner or later Stewart is bound to break
out. I don't think it's going to be this week. The Jaguars are
too sound fundamentally.

The original forecast on Mark Brunell's knee injury was that he
would return to lead the Jacksonville offense in eight weeks,
but if he's back for this one, he will have missed only six. It
could happen, or Rob Johnson could return from the sprained
ankle that forced him to sit out the Week 2 win over the Giants,
or Steve Matthews could have another career game. No, scratch
that. Not against the Steelers' defense, he won't. Whoever the
quarterback is, I can't see anything but a Jacksonville victory,
and the deciding factor could be the Pittsburgh cornerbacks, the
weakest part of the defense.

Miami at Tampa Bay is an intriguing game because this is the one
in which the Buccaneers, riding high after three straight
upsets, could suffer a letdown. For a Jimmy Johnson-coached
team, the Dolphins are weirdly out of balance, throwing like
crazy and basically giving up on the running game (six carries
in the second half against Green Bay), and all this with a Greek
chorus in the background murmuring that Dan Marino's days are
numbered. So if it's bombs away on Sunday night, how will Tony
Dungy's Bucs hold up?

I think they'll do just fine, and here's one reason: left
cornerback Donnie Abraham, a second-year pro out of East
Tennessee State. O.J. McDuffie, Marino's most reliable receiver,
will be Abraham's personal challenge, just as the Vikings' Cris
Carter was on Sunday. He attacked Carter, holding him to one
11-yard catch out of the five passes thrown to him when Abraham
had him in man coverage. When the Bucs had the ball they came up
with nothing but terrific plays, and yes, quarterback Trent
Dilfer had his share. Warrick Dunn's the game-breaker, Mike
Alstott's the hammer. I like the balanced offense to beat the
lopsided one, which means the amazing Bucs will go to 4-0.

How much did that emotional overtime loss to the Patriots take
out of the Jets? New York should have won it. Even without its
only serious pass rusher, Hugh Douglas, the defense still had
Drew Bledsoe's number. What beat the Jets was a blocked
chip-shot field goal, a sustained rush on quarterback Neil
O'Donnell and the unchartable element, Curtis Martin, who ran
them into the ground and made the game a personal crusade. How
does a team recover from that, especially against the Raiders,
an outfit that always seems to give the Jets problems,
especially when New York's at home?

Oakland hasn't lost to the Jets in New York since 1979. Since
their famous defeat in the '68 AFL title game, the Raiders have
taken six out of seven back East. But those were different
Raiders teams. They played with passion. This one seems hollow,
unless you're excited about the narrow victory over the Falcons.
I think New York will recover just fine. The Jets will win it,
as history suffers another reversal.

Blowout special: Buffalo, with its bruising pass rush, over
Indianapolis, which has allowed 18 sacks in three games. It
almost seems too easy, which makes me nervous. Tennessee over
Baltimore, on the strength of the Oilers' ground attack. What a
refreshing thing it is to see a team that refuses to give up on
the running game. I do admire the Ravens' courage, though,
especially that of quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who while
playing with a painfully sprained thumb, rallied his team to 10
fourth-quarter points to beat the Giants.

Now those Giants travel to St. Louis to face a Rams team that
has beaten them three out of the last four. New York coach Jim
Fassel, fearing the Baltimore rush, had Dave Brown throwing
short stuff out of a three-step drop. Brown had a career-high 28
completions, and the Giants still came up short when, for some
reason, kicker Brad Daluiso went sour. The Rams can rush the
passer, they can put up a sturdy defense at times, they can hang
in with the tough teams for a while, but two things have beaten
them--inconsistent quarterbacking (against San Francisco) and
lack of manpower (against Denver).

The Broncos came out flat on Sunday, ready for a fall, but the
Rams, minus wideout Isaac Bruce and two offensive linemen, and
with Lawrence Phillips slowed by a turf toe, didn't have enough
weapons. If they're still playing with a short deck, the Giants
will beat them. If they've got all their people back, they'll
win. It could go either way, but on a hunch, I'll take the


COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Alstott (40) and Dunn give the Buccaneers a one-two punch. [Mike Alstott in game]