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At one point this looked like one of the marquee games of the
season. Cowboys-49ers. Kind of quickens the pulse, doesn't it?
The teams have met seven times in the past five years, an
inordinate number for teams in different divisions. The stakes
were always high. This time it's different because what we've
got now is a pair of seriously flawed teams.

I can hear the chuckles out there. The Niners flawed? Hey,
they're 7-1. Yes, but that's against the NFL's B Division. Six
of those wins were against the NFC West's Three Stooges:
Atlanta, New Orleans and St. Louis, and another was over the
Panthers when they were struggling. The loss came to Tampa Bay,
which is closer to the caliber of teams the Niners will be
facing in the second half of the season.

Late in the third quarter of Sunday's victory over the Saints,
49ers center Chris Dalman limped to the sideline with a sprained
knee and ankle. He was replaced by Joe Rudolph, who shifted over
from left guard, where he was making his first start, in place
of the injured Ray Brown. Moving into the spot vacated by
Rudolph was 27-year-old Rod Milstead, who was selling Toyotas in
Maryland a week before the game. Then left tackle Derrick Deese
sprained his right knee and foot. So far this season San
Francisco has lined up four players at left guard, three at left
tackle and three at center. The Niners carry on, getting good
production from Steve Young and his wideouts, the running game,
the defense and even kicker Gary Anderson, who wasn't supposed
to be able to kick long field goals but nailed a 51-yarder on
Sunday and has made 14 straight.

The Cowboys' woes have been well documented. An offense that
goes poof in the red zone (four trips in their loss in
Philadelphia, four field goals), a declining Emmitt Smith, the
lack of a second receiver when defenses gang up on Michael
Irvin. On Sunday a new problem was uncovered (well, not really
all that new; the Bears took advantage of it a few weeks ago):
an inability to protect the quarterback against a team dedicated
to exotic blitz packages, as the Eagles were. Troy Aikman was
knocked out of the game in the first quarter, and the only thing
that kept Dallas alive was that Rodney Peete needed almost 56
minutes to get timed up with his receivers. When he finally did,
the Eagles pulled it out.

The odd part, though, is that going into the season many
observers, including yours truly, thought the weakest part of
the Dallas operation would be the defense. But that's been the
outfit that's held up and has kept the Cowboys from sinking even
lower than their current 4-4.

Now the question is: Can that defense, which relies more on
quickness than muscle, do worse things to the 49ers' offense and
its patchwork line than the Niners' defense, No. 1 in the league
(albeit mostly against stiffs), can do to that flawed Cowboys
attack? A negative angle, to be sure, but the pick here is San

I like the Steelers in Kansas City in the Monday nighter. Yeah,
I know, Arrowhead will be jumping, but it was last year, too,
when Pittsburgh's Mike Tomczak passed for 338 yards. Also, I've
been downgrading Kordell Stewart all year, and now, after he
brought the Steelers from behind to beat Jacksonville, it's time
to get off that trolley. Plus--and this might be the biggest
plus--I think Billy Cowher and the Steelers' defensive brain
trust have a good read on Paul Hackett's offense.

O.K., I admit it, I got caught up in all that Jake (the Snake)
Plummer hoopla last week, and at some point in my career I might
have made a worse pick than the Cardinals to beat Tennessee, but
I don't remember when. I won't make that mistake again. Look for
Philly to beat Arizona in the desert. The Eagles figure to have
a downer after the Dallas struggle, but the win over the Cowboys
wasn't a classic victory. The defense kept the Eagles in it. The
offense was choke city until the last drive. Plus this is a
division game, and Philly is finally poised to make a move in
the NFC East.

The hardest game on the board to pick is Oakland at Carolina.
This isn't exactly what you'd call a traditional matchup. The
Raiders caught all the breaks against Seattle, including a
touchdown on an interception after the ball bounced off a
receiver's foot, and led by 13 early in the third quarter. Then
school was out for the day. The Raiders' defense watched Warren
Moon, who cast his first presidential vote for Alf Landon, light
it up with 409 yards passing, leading the Seahawks to scores on
five straight drives in the second half to win going away.

Carolina was at home against Atlanta's fearsome one-two
quarterback punch of Tony Graziani and Billy Joe Tolliver. The
rain-drenched affair saw the Falcons on the Panthers' one with a
minute and a half to go, one TD, one recovered onside kick and
one field goal away from the upset, until, of course, things
went blooey for the Falcons, as they have all year. Not exactly
a thundering win for the Panthers.

With a 3-5 record and the rest of the division gradually pulling
away, the Raiders look ready to fold. I've got funny feelings
about this one, though. I'm still waiting for a complete game
from Carolina. O.K., the Panthers put things together against
San Diego, but that was more than a month ago. Call it Oakland
on a hunch.


COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Terry Kirby will butt heads with a strong Dallas defense. [Terry Kirby and opposing Dallas Cowboys in game]