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Dr. Z's Forecast

San Diego defensive end Marcellus Wiley has an interesting slant
on his team's 3-0 start. "We are climbing up the the food chain
in terms of our opponents," he says.

After the Chargers beat the Bengals and the Texans by a combined
58-9, no one was very excited. I mean, who had they played? But
things were different on Sunday. They outlasted the Cardinals in
the 103[degree] Arizona heat. In the fourth quarter, when they
should have been semicomatose, San Diego's defenders brought
even more heat, forcing Jake Plummer into four straight
incompletions from the Chargers' nine.

Now that's a step up on the food chain. And when they host the
unbeaten Patriots this Sunday, the Chargers will have reached the
very top. In a weekend devoid of really big games, this looks
like the most interesting one on the board. The Chargers once
again are keyed by their defense. It's a familiar story. They've
finished last or tied for last in the AFC West in four of the
last five seasons, but they've always played good D. In 1998 they
went 5-11, but their defense led the league.

It's a unit built on speed. San Diego alternates three big-league
pass rushers from the wings--Wiley, Raylee Johnson and Adrian
Dingle. Donnie Edwards is an undersized middle linebacker, but
he's one of the fastest in the league. And Marty Schottenheimer
must have his team in great shape, because there was no sign of a
meltdown on Sunday.

Are they ready for the Patriots, who proved they could ride their
young quarterback, Tom Brady, and win a 41-38 overtime shootout
when the defense had an off day? If everyone were healthy, I'd
say yes. But center Cory Raymer and linebacker Junior Seau came
away with injuries. Plus, the Patriots have already gotten their
September scare, and now they're ready to get serious again.

A San Diego pick is tempting, but I just can't see a young
quarterback (Drew Brees) beating a Bill Belichick defense, so
I've got to ride with the Super Bowl-champion Patriots.

--Carolina is another in the parade of unlikely unbeatens who are
doing it with defense. The Panthers have one of the league's best
and most underrated defensive lines, and now they've got a chance
to prove, in Green Bay, that their 3-0 record is no fluke. I
think they'll put pressure on Brett Favre and bang him around,
but what else is new? He's been down that road before. The Pack
will win it.

--It's a pleasure to watch Drew Bledsoe work a two-minute drill.
This guy knows what he's doing, and I like his Bills, at home,
against Chicago.

--After holding up for three quarters plus, the Jets' defense
finally cracked against the Dolphins, but it was the Jets'
offense that really did them in. This is just a hunch, but I
have a feeling the Jets will get it together in Jacksonville, so
I'll make this my upset special.

--They won't enjoy the Arizona steam cooker, but I say the Giants
will come away with the win.

--The Browns will continue the gnat attack, the barrage of short
passes that has bedeviled the Steelers, but I don't think they'll
have the success with that approach that New England and Oakland
did. Pittsburgh gets on the board with its first win.

--The Dolphins stay unbeaten in Kansas City and so do the Saints
in Detroit, but neither game will be easy. The Raiders will hold
off the Titans, and in our other upset, the Vikings will pull
themselves together to defeat the Seahawks in Seattle. Finally,
in the Monday-nighter, unless Baltimore's defense can reach back
and play like it did when it was a dominating unit, the Broncos
will beat the Ravens. --Paul Zimmerman

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COLOR PHOTO: DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES Tamarick Vanover and the Chargers will have to be at their best.