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Dr. Z's Forecast

Maybe the best deal you could have, if you're a team scrambling
for some kind of playoff position, is a game against Denver. The
Broncos already have clinched home field for the AFC playoffs,
and the Giants took care of their unbeaten hopes last weekend.
So what's left for Denver? Rest people, get 'em healthy, give
some of the youngsters a chance to earn their varsity letters?
"Maybe this game will be a wake-up call for us," Broncos owner
Pat Bowlen said in the locker room after the loss in New York.
"We haven't played well in three straight now."

Three straight against teams with losing records. The Broncos
turned the ball over four times in the first half against San
Diego; they had to come from behind to beat Kansas City, which
had them down by 10 midway through the fourth quarter; and they
let the Giants drive the length of the field against them on
Sunday for the win.

So it's a wake-up call, but waking up to what? A chance to go
15-1 instead of 14-2 or 13-3? A chance to get all the parts in
working order for the postseason? Decent themes for the
motivational pitch, I guess, but hardly comparable to what
motivates the Broncos' next two opponents. Miami, which faces
Denver in the Monday-night matchup that was fully hyped for a
month or so and can now be called merely "interesting," hasn't
clinched anything yet. Now the Dolphins must pick themselves up
off the mat after that exhausting, emotional loss to the Jets,
and try to get something going. A loss to Denver means that
they'll take a 9-6 record into the finale against Atlanta, which
still could be in the hunt for home field advantage in the NFC.
Then there's Denver's regular-season finale against Seattle,
which is still breathing, playoff wise. But we'll worry about
that one next week.

Miami-Denver is the age-old, late-season formula game: desperate
team against one that's loose and relaxed, and it could go either
way. The Dolphins continue to be hurt by a banged-up offensive
line and the Jets' blitzing defense exposed it, but I say Miami
will beat the Broncos--call it the desperation factor.

We'll stick to games with serious playoff implications, O.K.?
The Jets have a short week after the Sunday-nighter and travel
northwest for a Saturday meeting with rampaging Buffalo, which
undressed Oakland last weekend. In the game between these two
teams at the Meadowlands last month, Jets defensive coordinator
Bill Belichick wrote the book on how to play Doug Flutie: Flush
him to his right so he can't scan the entire field, as he does
when he scrambles left. Now it's time for the Bills to come up
with a counter move. I'm sure Dougie's brain cells are working
overtime on that one.

Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde has never played in Buffalo.
He's never faced the Hawk, the worst winds in any NFL stadium,
particularly in late December. The Jets are at the top of their
game, but they've already clinched a playoff spot and the Bills
are still scrambling. I'll take Buffalo in this one.

San Francisco keeps it going with a win in New England, which is
a different team without wideout Terry Glenn, out for the season
with a broken right ankle. The Lions are coming off a short week
after the Monday-nighter on the West Coast, so look for Atlanta
to stay healthy with a victory in Detroit. Rounding out the trio
of NFC elites, let's give Minnesota the win over Jacksonville,
unless you believe that the Jaguars can go into the Metrodome
and pull off an upset behind their third-string quarterback,
Jonathan Quinn. I don't think Mark Brunell will be back from the
sprained left ankle, and backup Jamie Martin is out for the year
with a torn ligament in his right knee.

Tennessee is strictly a hunch pick to upset Green Bay, which was
given a very rough time by visiting Chicago on Sunday. I still
can't get over the courage shown by Oilers quarterback Steve
McNair, with that painful turf toe and big clodhopper cast on
his foot, sprinting away from Jacksonville defenders last
weekend. After absorbing some heavy body punches from the
Chiefs, Dallas bounces back with a win against Philadelphia.

On Saturday, Tampa Bay gets a victory at Washington, but if the
Bucs take this one lightly, they'll get surprised. Arizona
hasn't beaten a team with a winning record, which shouldn't be a
problem because its opponents in the final two weeks, New
Orleans and San Diego, are both sub-.500. But I give the Saints
a desert upset, even though Kerry Collins is wobbling. New
Orleans will win it on defense. With the Giants' postseason
candle flickering, look for New York to beat Kansas City.
--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS In their earlier meeting, Mo Lewis and the Jets kept Flutie under wraps. [Mo Lewis and Doug Flutie in game]