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They're a pretty sorry bunch of playoff contenders. They came
into last weekend needing a win to stay alive or clinch a berth
or even win a division outright. Some got blown away, a few
played their worst game of the season, and one of them, the
Patriots, got suckered by a 282-pound defensive lineman.

Maybe the league could switch the format and put an asterisk
next to one team and say, "Look, you're going to be gentlemanly
and cede your spot to the Bengals, since they're playing the
most interesting football in the league right now." No? Can't do
it at this late date? Well I guess not, so here's what we're
left with.

The Bucs, needing a win for their first postseason berth in 15
years, got slaughtered by the Jets. While they were wringing
their hands over the loss, they found out they were in the
playoffs anyway because the Panthers, desperately hanging on and
needing two wins, got massacred by the Packers.

The Redskins, with a division title on the line, turned the ball
over six times and got blown out by the Giants. New England,
with a chance to move on top in the AFC East, holding an
eight-point lead and the ball with 2:10 to go against the
Steelers, saw it all go poof when defensive end Kevin Henry
returned an interception 36 yards, setting up the touchdown and
two-point conversion that sent the game into overtime. The Pats'
loss put Miami in swell position to move on top a day later, and
we know what happened in that one. Colts 41, Dolphins zip.

The Vikings could have clinched a playoff spot by beating the
Lions in Minnesota. So with two minutes left Eddie Murray blew a
37-yard field goal that would have put the game out of reach,
and the Lions drove 72 yards for the win.

O.K., now we're down to the final week, and there will be
furious battles on all fronts to see who will advance into the
playoffs. Before I get into the prognosticating, let me give you
one statistic. Since 1970, when a second wild-card team was
added, 100 teams have played in the first round. Three have
reached the Super Bowl.

The winner of Monday night's New England-Miami battle will take
the AFC East. The Jets can't win it (unless the
Patriots-Dolphins game ends in a tie), and if they lose to
Detroit, they're out of the playoffs and the Patriots-Dolphins
loser is in.

What a dismal pair of locker rooms in Foxboro and Indianapolis
last weekend. There was a nasty confrontation between the New
England defenders and the offensive group. The defense felt the
offense had blown the game with that fatal pass, leading one
defensive player to say bitterly, "We've been on the field 80
plays a game for weeks now. And all the coach says now is,
'We've got one game left. Think about Miami.' What's going to be
different?" Eighty-eight snaps against the Steelers, five
straight games in which the enemy has run more than 70 plays,
and that's got to have a long-range effect.

But the Dolphins aren't exactly riding high. Dan Marino's 71
yards passing against the Colts were the second fewest in his
career. (He threw for 67 in Indianapolis last year, but he broke
his ankle in the first quarter of that one.) Jimmy Johnson's
press conference lasted exactly 95 seconds and he answered three
questions, one of them from a tipsy fan who'd somehow gotten
past security.

I like the Patriots to beat Miami on the road. I like the way
their defensive people were flying to the ball and gang-tackling
Jerome Bettis. They deserved better against Pittsburgh.

I picked Tampa Bay to beat the Jets, purely because of the
condition of New York's offensive line. Then when the weather
came up windy, with gusts of up to 30 mph, I didn't like my pick
so much because no one knows how to call a game in the
Meadowlands winds as well as Bill Parcells. As it turned out,
the winds were beside the point. Instead of rallying around
Trent Dilfer, who was trying to hang in with a very sore ankle,
the Bucs' receivers came up with a case of the drops. And their
special teams went south.

Well, there won't be any wind in the Silverdome on Sunday, and
the Jets' line is still in tough shape. And the defense has
never had to tackle anyone like Barry Sanders, though Tampa
Bay's Warrick Dunn (88 yards rushing) did a fair imitation. Yes,
I do like the Lions, and was there a more courageous performance
than the one Herman Moore turned in against the Vikings,
dragging himself around on a bad foot, with a dislocated pinkie
on each hand, and still catching six passes, including the one
for the winning score?

A Detroit victory will knock out either the Redskins or the
Vikings, but neither of them will know the outcome because
Jets-Lions is a four o'clock start. If the Vikings beat Indy at
the Metrodome, they're in, no matter what Detroit does. Piece of
cake, you say? Hardly. Just ask Miami. The Colts are coming off
wins over the Jets and the Dolphins. But here's where the streak
ends. Minnesota will get things together and pull out the win.

Finally, we have the 7-7-1 Redskins, who are in if they beat
Philly at home and either the Lions or the Vikings lose. What is
there to like about this team? Jeff Hostetler's kiddie corps of
wideouts, Jimmy Thrash, Albert Connell and Chris Thomas, caught
10 balls against the Giants; the varsity, Henry Ellard and
Michael Westbrook, had one, total. Westbrook looks more and more
like the classic coach-breaker. Jason Sehorn and Phillippi
Sparks ate him up. Westbrook slipped and fell on Sehorn's
35-yard interception return for a touchdown that put the game
away. The Skins defense plays hard but the offense is screwing
things up. Washington should get some yards running the ball,
seeing as how the Eagles gave up 211 on the ground to the
Falcons. So I guess Washington is the pick, but nothing would
surprise me, not even a tie.


COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Tedy Bruschi and the Pats will wrap up the division in Miami.