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Dr. Z's Forecast

The Denver hype has now reached Phase Two. Phase One was in late
October, when the Broncos handled the Jaguars fairly easily,
leading to all sorts of silly speculation that they just might
have a chance to go undefeated. A long shot, everybody said at
the time. Forget it.

Phase Two comes as a result of the lopsided wins the past two
weeks over Kansas City and Oakland, which at one time appeared to
be Denver's two most serious division foes but, in retrospect,
don't seem very serious at all. This is the phase that calls for
a careful look at the schedule, a rapid intake of breath and the
observation, "My gosh, there's nothing between here and Miami in
Game 15," the nothing being roadies against San Diego and the
Giants, and a homer against K.C.

The game against the Dolphins--in Miami on Monday night, Dec.
21--will be Phase Three. All systems are go if the Broncos win it,
because no one figures them to blow the finale, at home against
Seattle. That attaches a certain amount of drama to this Sunday's
game against the Chargers, if you agree with the coaches who say
the games that scare them the most are the ones that everyone
takes for granted. The problem with this theory is that the
Broncos haven't shown signs of taking anyone lightly. They're
always up, or maybe they're just so much better than everyone
else that they create the illusion of being up. That's the mark
of the truly gifted team.

During the Steelers' glory years, from 1972 through '79, do you
know what their record was against teams that finished the season
below .500? It was 50-1. They were bullies. So are the Broncos.
And since this is a prediction column, I'll end the suspense and
assign Denver victory number 12 against San Diego.

The 49ers are in prime time for the second straight week, this
time in a Monday-nighter at home against the Giants. Honestly,
I'm not trying to pad my record with puppies; I'm just trying to
address a game lots of people will be watching, and I'm looking
for ways New York can win. The Niners tried hard to carry the
Saints for the first few rounds on Sunday night, turning the ball
over three times in their first four possessions, but it was just
a matter of time until the knockout came. The Giants' offense is
nowhere to be found, but their defense still has some bite, and
if the 49ers start off the same way.... O.K., who's kidding whom?
The Niners will take it, and now we'll get into some action
that's a little more difficult to predict.

The Oilers to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. I've been in
Tennessee's corner all along because I still think the real
Oilers are the ones that beat the Steelers twice in three weeks,
not the guys who got so thoroughly handled, physically and
strategically, by the Jets on Sunday. Vinny Testaverde picked
apart the Tennessee defense underneath, but I don't think Jon
Kitna, who's replacing the benched Warren Moon, will have the
amount of time to throw that New York gave its man.

Arizona at K.C. is a head-scratcher. The total points scored in
their games on Sunday was 162. The Chiefs were supposed to be
carried by their defense, and the Cardinals were widely praised
for building a feared front four. So where were those defenses on
Sunday? Kansas City saw San Diego run up 21 fourth-quarter points
to pull off an upset. Arizona built a big lead on Washington and
then watched in horror as the Skins scored touchdowns on six
consecutive possessions. The Cardinals still have playoff hopes;
the Chiefs' are just about dead. The traditional Arrowhead fan
noise might not be a factor because, after six straight losses,
these people are so disillusioned that they just might root for
the visitors. Still, the Chiefs have to get it together sometime,
don't they? And this will be that moment. I'll go with K.C.

Tampa Bay, another drowning swimmer, over the Bears in Chicago,
only because of the Bears' unsettled quarterback situation. I'm
figuring the Patriots for a letdown after the Miami
Monday-nighter, so I'm going with Buffalo in an upset. Is the
Bills' ground game for real? I think so.

Finally, and don't laugh, Carolina will give the Jets a battle
for a while before fading. The formula simply won't change for
the Jets--they beat the teams they're supposed to lose to and,
much to Bill Parcells's chagrin, lose to the ones they should
beat. I think the pattern will change here. Look for the Jets to
go to 8-4.

--Paul Zimmerman

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COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS Jake Plummer, who led Arizona to 73 points in its last two games, will look to light up the Chiefs. [Jake Plummer with football in game]