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Original Issue

Inside The NFL

If not for the Broncos, the Patriots might be the team to beat in
the AFC

In a pivotal matchup in the AFC Second Fiddle Tournament on
Sunday, the Patriots destroyed the Chiefs with a show of brawn
and finesse that suggested New England is as good a candidate as
any to take on the top-dog Broncos in the conference title game.
In fact, this Patriots team may turn out to be better than any
of the four that Bill Parcells coached, including the one that
went to the Super Bowl two years ago.

"Kansas City and Denver were supposed to be the lead dogs in the
AFC," said New England cornerback Ty Law, whose club lost its
season opener to the Broncos 27-21 but manhandled the Chiefs
40-10. "We showed we're a big dog when it counts."

The game turned in the first quarter on two plays that revealed
which team had the most guts. Trailing 7-0 and facing
third-and-one at its 47, Kansas City sent its 232-pound bowling
ball of a back, Donnell Bennett, behind center Tim Grunhard.
Bennett ran into a wall of bodies and didn't gain an inch. With
the home crowd at Foxboro Stadium roaring, Chiefs coach Marty
Schottenheimer made an emphatic first-down motion with his right
arm, signaling his offense to play on. This time 232-pound
fullback Tony Richardson made a charge behind Grunhard. But
defensive tackle Chad Eaton submarined Grunhard and slowed
Richardson enough to allow an avalanche of Patriots to come down
on him. "That was the game," Eaton said.

"After that," said New England linebacker Chris Slade, "they

The next six Patriots possessions ended with a field goal, a
touchdown, a touchdown, a field goal, a touchdown and a field
goal, giving New England a 37-0 lead after 41 minutes. Here are
three reasons to like this 4-1 club:

1) Rookie running back Robert Edwards is shaping up as a solid
replacement for the departed Curtis Martin. In his last three
games Edwards, the first-round draft pick from Georgia, rushed
for 92, 97 and 104 yards. On Sunday he ran for one score and
caught a pass for another. Judging by his punishing style,
Edwards looks as though he will be a more effective back in cold
weather--a key to New England's late-season and playoff
success--than Martin was. Against the Chiefs the 218-pound
Edwards ran hard between the tackles, and although he has few of
Martin's outside moves, he might be better suited to getting the
tough yards. Edwards is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, while
Martin, a restricted free agent who signed with the Jets in the
off-season, has a 3.5-yard mark and missed Sunday's game against
the Rams with a bruised thigh.

2) Drew Bledsoe is a better passer than he was a year ago. New
offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese has helped Bledsoe develop a
quicker release, make more precise drops and eliminate careless
throws. Bledsoe has completed 60% of his attempts with eight
touchdown passes and only three interceptions. "Ernie demands
precision from the receivers too," Bledsoe says. "They're almost
always exactly where I think they'll be." It's more than that.
At 26 Bledsoe is more mature and better able to make good things
happen amid the chaos.

3) Law is a corner who can shut down top receivers. In the
off-season Law talked coach Pete Carroll into letting him cover
the opponent's best receiver each week. On Sunday, when the
Chiefs' Elvis Grbac dropped back to throw 33 times, wideout
Andre Rison didn't get a sniff against Law, predominantly in man
coverage. Rison's one reception went for five yards and came
when Law was on the opposite side of the field. For the season
Law has held the opponents' top wideouts to a total of 13
catches and has not given up a touchdown pass.

He attributes much of his success to the six-week off-season
training session he had with track coach Bob Kersee. "Deion
Sanders and Dale Carter always take the best guy, and I want to
be in their league," says Law, a 1995 first-round draft pick who
leads the AFC in interceptions, with four. "Training with Bob
helped because I believe it gave me the deep-ball speed I
lacked. I already thought I could play with anybody, and now I'm
sure of it."

Kevin Gilbride

When they hired Kevin Gilbride to be their coach 21 months ago,
the Chargers thought they were getting an imaginative offensive
mind who could build confidence in his players. That's the kind
of coordinator Gilbride had been in Jacksonville and earlier in
Houston, where quarterback Warren Moon and a group of
free-spirited receivers led by Haywood Jeffires were inspired by
Gilbride's positive thinking.

In San Diego, however, Gilbride has been a dour,
glass-is-half-empty guy, and he almost certainly won't make it
out of a tailspin that has seen his team lose 12 of its last 14,
including a horrendous 7-6 decision to the undermanned Raiders
on Sunday. Chargers quarterbacks Ryan Leaf and Craig Whelihan
combined to complete 10 of 24 passes for 97 yards with three
interceptions. San Diego lost to a team that, playing without
quarterback Jeff George, connected on 31% of its passes and
rushed for 18 yards.

Afterward Chargers strong safety Rodney Harrison was asked if the
players still had confidence in Gilbride. After a 20-second pause
Harrison said, "Put it like this: We still have confidence."

In Gilbride?

"We still have confidence," Harrison said.

Expansion Draft

The expansion draft to help stock the Cleveland franchise will
be held on Feb. 9 at the Civic Center in Canton, Ohio, down the
street from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, instead of in a
sterile hotel ballroom near league offices in New York City.
That means Browns followers will be able to fill the place.
"Cleveland fans are as loyal as any team's, and they'll show it
that day," says Otto Graham, one of the original Browns.

Each of the league's 30 established clubs must leave five signed
veterans unprotected, and the Browns must take from 30 to 42
players (no more than two from any club). This process did not
exactly yield a treasure trove of talent for the Jaguars and
Panthers in '95. Only Carolina's wideout Mark Carrier and nickel
back Rod Smith are still making significant contributions.


After the Jets beat the Patriots at the Meadowlands last
October, New York coach Bill Parcells walked up the tunnel with
struggling New England wideout Terry Glenn and asked him, "What
the hell is wrong with you?" A stoked-up Glenn caught seven
passes for a career-high 163 yards the following week against
the Packers, then stunned Parcells by writing his former coach a
thank-you note. "He's really a good kid," Parcells says of his
former whipping boy.... Rams running back Amp Lee, the team's
MVP in '97, is having another outstanding season. On Sunday,
during a 30-10 win over the Jets, Lee carried nine times for 53
yards and two touchdowns and caught six passes for 62 yards.
Among running backs, only Arizona's Larry Centers (362
receptions) has more catches than Lee's 260 since the start of
the '94 season.

The End Zone

Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman,quarterback Jeff George,
strong safety Anthony Newman, defensive end James Harris,
defensive tackle Grady Jackson and kicker Greg Davis have missed
up to three games in '98 with strains or tears of the groin.
"It's the year of the groin," says Newman.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS The 18th pick in last April's draft, Edwards has shown the Pats he can grind out the tough yards. [Robert Edwards and Donnie Edwards]

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [Dick Hantak making call in game]

Have Flag, Will Throw It

SI has learned that at least two teams have taken the unusual
step of asking the NFL office not to schedule the officiating
crew headed by referee Dick Hantak (above) for their games. Why
the concern? The Hantak crew has presided over three of the five
games in which the most penalties were walked off this season:
the 49ers-Bills (34 flags), the Giants-Raiders (31) and the
Chargers-Chiefs (24, which ties for fourth). Excluding Hantak's
crew, the average number of penalties per game this season is
13.7. The league doesn't allow its officials to talk to the
media, but NFL director of officiating Jerry Seeman says the
work of the flag-happy seven-man crew hasn't been as bad as it
seems. Before Hantak's group assessed 18 penalties in the
Panthers-Cowboys game on Sunday, Seeman said, "Their overall
accuracy and performance have been good." Through Monday's play,
here are the referees whose crews have the highest
penalties-per-game averages this season.


Dick Hantak 6 23.0
Ron Winter 5 17.0
Bill Carollo 5 15.4
Phil Luckett 5 15.4
Ed Hochuli 5 15.4

The Buzz

1. O'DONNELL'S REVENGE In the last three years, the Steelers
have chosen Kordell Stewart and the Jets have chosen Glenn Foley
and Vinny Testaverde to play quarterback over Neil O'Donnell. On
Sunday, O'Donnell took the Bengals 93 yards in 1:36, ending the
drive by outfoxing the Steelers with a fake spike before
throwing the winning last-minute touchdown pass. O'Donnell
completed 20 of 26 passes for 298 yards and three scores, with
no interceptions. Sunday's numbers for the three who ran
O'Donnell out of town: 49% passing, one touchdown pass, two
interceptions and a pair of fumbles.

2. RARE BIRDS What two teams have the best record in the NFL
over the last 11 regular-season games? A clue: Both have
employed Brett Favre. The Falcons and the Packers are 9-2.
Atlanta, which faces the Saints, the Jets and the Rams in the
next three weeks, is a heavy favorite to grab a wild card.

3. PARCELLS-PATRIOTS III On Sunday, eight days before this
season's first Jets-Patriots showdown, vendors were selling CAN
THE TUNA T-shirts outside Foxboro Stadium. Jets coach Bill
Parcells returns to his old stomping ground, and this time he
brings former New England running back Curtis Martin with him.
"Bill coming back, Curtis coming back, Monday night, division
game," New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. "This is
turning into Red Sox-Yankees."