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Dr Z's Forecast

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Posted: Tuesday December 15, 1998 06:35 PM

By Paul Zimmerman

Sports Illustrated

  In their earlier meeting, Mo Lewis and the Jets kept Flutie under wraps. Mike Segar/Reuters
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.

Issue date: December 21, 1998

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