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Five divisions are holding their summit meetings this weekend. The top two teams in the AFC North, South, East and West plus the leaders in the NFC East are having their second go-round, and it's a dazzling thing to behold.
Dallas whipped Philly in October, running the opening onside kick back for a touchdown and giving Donovan McNabb a very rough afternoon. Of course this was during Donovan's Blue Period, when everybody was giving him a hard time, but since then he's found his game, and the Eagles have run off seven straight wins.
The Cowboys are at a curious juncture, having sandwiched an emotional victory over Carolina between two nasty losses—to the Patriots and the Dolphins—which dropped them a game behind Philadelphia. For all the miseries the Eagles were going through when the teams last met, Philly was still in it at the end, and the game was in Dallas. It's a different Eagles team now, with the defensive backs reasonably healthy again. Philly wins it.
The Dolphins and the Patriots played a wacky one in Miami in October. The game went into overtime, and the Patriots claimed they were robbed on the coin flip, remember? But they chose the end of the field that would force Miami's Olindo Mare to attempt a field goal from the baseball infield, and the second most accurate kicker in NFL history missed a 35-yarder, after he'd had another 35-yarder blocked in the fourth quarter. The Pats won it on an 82-yard pass from Tom Brady to wideout Troy Brown.
Well, the division-leading Patriots are the hottest team in football, having won eight straight. Last week they beat the Colts in a weird one, putting the ball in the air while they were trying to preserve a lead, then climbing off the ropes to make a goal line stand at the end. Meanwhile the Dolphins, with three extra days of rest following their Thanksgiving Day victory over Dallas, have looked terrific since quarterback Jay Fiedler came back from his sprained knee ligament. He's as accurate as he's ever been, and the team is responding to his leadership. The game's in Foxborough, which means something. The Pats have won the last two there, but both games have been close. I'll ride with the hot team and pick New England.
The Colts blew out the Titans in September in a game in which Tennessee's Steve McNair dislocated the ring finger on his passing hand. Indy ran well. The Titans missed a lot of tackles. The Colts got a break when Tennessee was upset by the Jets on Monday night, leaving the teams tied atop the AFC South. The Titans are coming off a short week, but they're playing at home. Those are the bare bones of it. My gut feeling is that if McNair is fully functional—and we can never be sure about his health—the Titans will squeak one out. But if he's out, I'll take the Colts.
Then there's the game I consider the most intriguing on the board, Cincinnati-Baltimore for top dog in the AFC North. Four straight wins have lifted the Bengals onto a new plateau, that of a serious contender. The Ravens are working themselves into a frenzy over a Cincinnati team that beat them by eight points in October, which puts the Bengals in a position they haven't been in for a decade. If Cincinnati's defense was just a little stouter, I'd lead with my heart and go for the upset, but Baltimore, under quarterback Anthony Wright, has rung up 88 points in its last two games. The Ravens get my grudging vote.
Quickpix: In the other game involving division front-runners, Denver hands the Chiefs their second loss. Seattle is my upset choice at Minnesota. New Orleans continues the humiliation of Tampa Bay. The Giants beat Washington, but in this hallowed rivalry anything could happen. Finally, in the Monday-nighter, St. Louis defeats Cleveland.