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I've been riding the Buccaneers for four straight weeks, and if
I were a handicapper without a heart, I'd say that now's the
time to get off them. What? At home against Arizona, a
notoriously weak road team? Surely the fellow must be mad. Just
hear me out.

Tampa Bay has been up for every game so far: the 49ers, followed
by two division matchups, followed by Sunday night's intrastate
extravaganza against the Dolphins. It's time for a letdown, in a
game everyone will be handing the Bucs before the ball is
kicked. Could you blame Tampa Bay for looking ahead to the
Packers the next week? Also, Arizona will have had two weeks to

So after making a spirited case for a Cardinals upset, I'll do
an about-face and stick with the Bucs to win a tight one, and
the only reason I'm copping out is that I saw the Bucs-Dolphins
game. Tampa Bay had seven possessions, not counting a one-play
kneeldown to end the first half. Five were decent-sized drives
that ended in scores, one ended with a tipped-ball interception,
the final one was a clock-killer to close out the game. Trent
Dilfer, throwing on rhythm or off balance, was putting the ball
into his receivers' hands, and not a pass was dropped. The
running game was a combination of passion and execution. And the
team didn't commit a penalty until the fourth quarter.

Tony Dungy's Bucs don't do dumb things. They are beautifully
coached, and they deserve everything they've gotten so far.

The 49ers to beat Carolina, a team that's had the Niners' number
in three of their four meetings. Maybe I'm making too much of
the last two San Francisco wins over the dregs of the NFL, and
the Panthers' weird letdown against the Chiefs, who had five
sacks and forced five turnovers. But there's something seriously
out of whack with a Carolina team that commits more penalties
than the enemy and that can no longer count on the home field
magic. I don't think quarterback Kerry Collins has looked right
since he came back from his broken jaw, either. Yes, the
Panthers' defense will be stoked, playing on Monday night for
the first time, in front of the home folks, and I think it'll
put a lot of heat on Steve Young, but the Niners have a
formidable defense, too, No. 1 in the league the last time I
looked, and that's what'll decide it.

Washington over Jacksonville on a hunch. I like the team that's
had a week off against the one coming off an emotional
Monday-nighter. Jim Fassel & Co. may still be in shock after
their offensive disaster in St. Louis, but I like the Giants to
bounce back hard at home against the Saints, who aren't fooling
me with that frenzied victory over the Lions. You'll see, a
story will break late in the week that New Orleans put a
different bunch of guys in its jerseys on Sunday.

I like Philadelphia on the road against Minnesota on Sunday
night for two reasons. Number 1, the Eagles will run the ball.
O.K., Minnesota held Green Bay to less than 100 rushing yards,
but the Packers averaged 4.2 yards a shot, and they didn't run
more only because that weird Vikings zone defense, which doesn't
believe in covering slot receivers, was such easy pickings. That
leads to reason No. 2. The Minnesota safeties were spectators,
but the scheme deserves most of the blame, and I think the
Eagles' innovative offensive coordinator, Jon Gruden, will pick
it apart.

You put two receivers over 100 yards, your running back goes
over the century mark, your quarterback throws for almost 400,
you commit no turnovers, and it's all overshadowed by the fact
that the snap-hold-and-kick part of the operation is a mess.
Give the Raiders credit. They are constantly coming up with new
ways to lose, this time to the Jets, a team that couldn't stop
them--until Oakland lined up for a field goal. Will the misery
continue at home against St. Louis this Sunday? I think not. The
Rams have a spirited defense, innovatively coached by that old
master, Bud Carson, but I think it'll wear down under a steady
run of three-and-outs by the Rams' offense, which is still
nowhere. Oakland's the pick on superior firepower.

The Jets are even on should-haves. They lost one in New England
that they should have won, and they pulled a vice-versa against
Oakland. Now they travel to Cincinnati to face a team that had
Denver in trouble for a while but got overrun by the hoofbeats
of Terrell Davis. If Bill Parcells were more committed to the
running game, I'd like the Jets in this one, but he's not
relentless with it the way he used to be. I think too much Drew
Bledsoe in New England changed his values, just as Dan Marino
changed Don Shula's thinking in Miami.

Oh, yes, Parcells's game plan will have a lot of running built
into it, but this isn't something hatched overnight. If right
tackle David Williams is out (sprained left foot), things will
be even tougher for the Jets. Add to that the facts that
Cincinnati head man Bruce Coslet is still another fired Jets
coach seeking revenge, quarterback Jeff Blake is getting his
first crack at the team that turned him loose, and the Jets,
with Hugh Douglas hampered by a groin pull, couldn't put
consistent pressure on Jeff George last weekend, and you've got
a rather iffy pick for Cincinnati.


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Collins can expect the same kind of treatment he got against K.C. [Kerry Collins being tackled in game]