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Dr. Z's Forecast

The best division to handicap is the AFC East. Why? Because 1)
it has four good teams in it, 2) they're all contending, and 3)
all four could wind up in the playoffs, or only one of them
could. The traditionalists wring their hands and groan about
parity, but isn't this what it's all about: hard-fought
competition going down to the wire? Let's take a look at what
lies ahead for this quartet.

JETS (8-4). They're tied with Miami for the division lead, but
they hold a double hammer over the Dolphins: They've already
beaten Miami, and they've got a big edge in two other
tiebreakers, division and conference records. But the key is
that, after taking on Seattle at home this weekend, New York
ends its season with games against the three other division
contenders (at Miami and Buffalo, then home for New England).

You could excuse the Jets for getting into a look-ahead mode as
they prepare for the Seahawks. But here are a couple of pluses:
The Jets were serious against the Panthers on Sunday, scoring on
nine of their first 10 possessions, and they're as healthy as
they've been all year. So we'll give the Jets a win against
Seattle, which isn't a bold pick, and then we'll worry about the
Miami game.

DOLPHINS (8-4). The schedule is wicked, starting with Oakland on
the road. The Raiders are furious after their loss at home to
the Redskins and have wild-card hopes of their own. Miami gets
the Jets the following week, then the Broncos in a
Monday-nighter, probably with all that hoopla about spoiling
Denver's unbeaten season. Finally the Dolphins go to Atlanta,
where the Falcons might be spurred on by the hope of getting
home field advantage for the NFC playoffs. First things first.
The concern is that Miami has a new left side of the offensive
line and the Raiders' front four can really bring it, but the
Dolphins will win in Oakland, just as they did last year.

BILLS (7-5). They play at Cincinnati on Sunday, then have
Oakland and the Jets in Buffalo--where that stiff December wind
can turn a passing game upside down--before the finale in New
Orleans. First the Bills have to get over that awful loss to New
England, courtesy of Walt Coleman's officiating crew. What I
didn't like about the Bills on Sunday was that they never rushed
more than four people on any of the 10 plays during the
Patriots' winning drive. Even before that, all they had to do to
put the game away was throw one little hitch pass to get a first
down, but they went conservative and gave New England the ball
back with 1:52 to go. That's old-world thinking. O.K., the Bills
will get healthy against the Bengals, but Buffalo's modus
operandi in the crunch makes me nervous.

PATRIOTS (7-5). They play at Pittsburgh, at St. Louis, San
Francisco at home and then the Jets at the Meadowlands. Drew
Bledsoe is gutting it out with a broken finger, but New England
fans will get to watch him just one more time this year. I'm
trying hard to find an upset here, but I can't. After their
coin-flip fiasco on Thanksgiving, the Steelers had three extra
days of rest, and they've won their last six over the Pats in
Three Rivers. Pittsburgh's the pick.

Will we permit a 5-7 team that everyone else has written off to
still entertain playoff hopes? Hey, we'll permit anything. The
Bucs face two winning teams, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, both in
Tampa, then go on the road to Washington and Cincy. If they run
the table the Bucs could make it to the postseason, but first
they've got to beat the Packers on Monday night, and without
middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, I don't think it's going to
happen. Green Bay is finally running the ball. Look for the Pack
to beat the Bucs with superior firepower.

Jeez, you say, will this guy pick even one upset? I'm trying,
but I just don't see any. San Diego at Washington? Nope. The
Chargers dominated Denver for a while and forced four turnovers,
and still lost big. The Redskins will keep it going. Giants over
Arizona? Tempting, but Jake Plummer seems to be in full stride,
while New York's offense is limping along. Cardinals in a close
one. How about New Orleans over Dallas if Deion's still out?
Sorry, that matters against teams like Minnesota, but not when
you're facing an offense that's been outscored by its defense in
two of the last three games. The Cowboys are the pick.

Wait, I've found an upset. Ravens over the Oilers in Tennessee.
Baltimore's playing it loose, while the Oilers get tighter and
tighter as their slim playoff hopes slip away.

--Paul Zimmerman

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COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Anthony Pleasant and the Jets should dispose of the Seahawks on Sunday.[Anthony Pleasant pursuing Steve Beuerlein, who has football]