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Dr. Z's Forecast

The most interesting action on the final weekend of the regular
season involves the race for the last NFC wild-card spot, only
because it's so freaky. Three teams, all with shaky foundations
and two with losing records, are battling for what the NFL
tournament directors like to call the sixth seed. But here's the
thing about that lowly sixth seed: It's a much better position to
be in than fourth or fifth.

Those two spots are filled by San Francisco (11-4) and Green Bay
(10-5), who have to play each other on wild-card weekend, the
site to be determined by how they do on Sunday. Who does poor No.
6 get to play? The division champion with the worst record, in
this case 9-6 Dallas, which barely squeaked by Philadelphia and
hasn't put a decent game together since Deion Sanders went down
with a sprained toe seven weeks ago.

Here's the formula for deciding which of the three
stooges--Arizona (8-7), Tampa Bay (7-8) or the New York Giants
(7-8)--gets to play the Cowboys. If San Diego goes to Tempe and
somehow upsets the Cardinals on Sunday, and the Bucs and Giants
win, then it's a three-way tie and Tampa Bay goes to the
playoffs. If Arizona and Tampa Bay end up tied, the Cards get
the nod. The tiebreaker in each of these scenarios is conference
record. Finally, if the Giants and Cardinals end up tied, New
York, by virtue of its sweep of Arizona, wins the spot.

Of course, the Cardinals can eliminate all of this nonsense with
a victory over the Chargers, but nothing is easy for them. Their
hurry-up offense produced 43 plays in the first half against New
Orleans and had the Saints' tongues hanging out with exhaustion,
but Arizona was still on the short end of a 10-6 score. The Cards
took the lead in the third quarter, then let Kerry Collins and
his Offense from Hell drive the length of the field to put the
Saints ahead with 1:21 to play before Jake Plummer drove his team
for the game-winning field goal.

Now Arizona faces a San Diego team with a serious defense and
nothing to lose. The game starts at 4:15 p.m. on the East Coast,
so the Cardinals will already know the result of the
Buccaneers-Bengals 1 p.m. matchup. I like the Bucs, but I also
liked them against the Redskins in last Saturday's must-win game.
Tampa Bay specializes in breaking your heart just when you feel
coach Tony Dungy's guys are poised for big things. If they win,
the Bucs will be scoreboard watching, because the Giants-Eagles
game is also a late starter. New York is playing the best ball of
the NFC threesome, and I could see this team upsetting Dallas if
it gets into the playoffs. The Giants will jump on the Eagles
early, and the game will be decided by the third quarter, which
will put even more pressure on the Cardinals.

If the Chargers could play defense the whole time and keep their
offense off the field, I'd give them a chance against Arizona.
But I can't see Craig Whelihan and his bag of interceptions
pulling off the upset. Cardinals to win on turnovers and advance
to the postseason for the first time since 1982, six years before
they moved to Arizona.

The Packers and the 49ers, fighting for home field advantage in
their wild-card showdown, both have banged-up quarterbacks. On
Sunday, if Green Bay beats Chicago and San Francisco loses to St.
Louis, then Lambeau Field gets the wild-card game. But I say the
49ers will beat the Rams for the 17th straight time, with or
without Steve Young, who's nursing a sprained knee.

A Niners victory renders the Packers-Bears game meaningless, but
because the Green Bay game is earlier, the Packers will be
playing for something. It's a yes-but pick. The Packers win with
Brett Favre, who complained of a turf toe and a sore hip, hand
and thumb after a win over the Oilers, but lose without him.

Finally, there's the AFC. Miami secured a playoff spot with its
win over Denver on Monday night. With four of the five AFC East
teams in the field, the conference playoffs will be like
intramural championships. Seems like we've had a crucial AFC
East game on the board every week since October.

How will the Dolphins do at Atlanta? The Falcons are playing for
zip, while Miami is still positioning itself for a home game in
the wild-card round. I say the Dolphins win again.

--Paul Zimmerman

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COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Jeff Thomason and the Packers need help to bring their wild-card game to snowy Lambeau. [Jeff Thomason in game in snow]