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WEEK 4 PRIMER / T.J. SIMERS : It’s a Battle for Florida

One of the biggest games in franchise history for the Buccaneers, who are trying to sell luxury boxes and club seats in a new stadium to open next September. It’s also a battle for Florida bragging rights, with Jacksonville, also undefeated, making its pitch for respect on Monday night TV.

Dan Marino versus Trent Dilfer, with Dilfer looking like the star so far. Of course he can hand it off to Warrick Dunn or Mike Alstott, whereas Marino gets no such sure-fire help from Karim Abdul-Jabbar. Jabbar is averaging 2.7 yards a carry, and the Tampa Bay defense ranks third in the league at stopping the run. That puts the game back on Marino’s arm, and with a national spotlight focused on Tampa Bay, Marino probably will be fighting for his job, since Coach Jimmy Johnson is just waiting for an opportunity to switch to Craig Erickson.

Edge to Marino, who is backed against the wall.

ON TV

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* Oakland (1-2) at New York Jets (1-2), 10 a.m., Channel 4: The Raiders have to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments-- something Jet receiver Keyshawn Johnson can relate to.

* Minnesota(2-1) at Green Bay (2-1), 10 a.m., Channel 11: The Vikings flopped in their NFC first-place showdown with Tampa Bay but now get a chance for redemption in Green Bay. Forget it.

* Cincinnati (1-1) at Denver (3-0), 1 p.m., Channel 4: A tough task for the Broncos, who will probably be without safety Steve Atwater. Quarterback Jeff Blake has the arm to go pass for pass with John Elway, but what’s his answer for Denver running back Terrell Davis?

* Kansas City at Carolina, 10 a.m

Line: Carolina by 54 1/2

* Chicago at New England, 10 a.m.

Line: New England by 13

* Detroit at New Orleans, 10 a.m.

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Line: Detroit by 5 1/2

* Baltimore at Tennessee, 10 a.m.

Line: Tennessee by 3 1/2

* Atlanta at San Francisco, 1 p.m.

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Line: San Francisco by 14 1/2

* Indianapolis at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

Line: Buffalo by 6 1/2

* San Diego at Seattle, 1 p.m.

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Line: Seattle by 5 1/2

* N.Y. Giants at at St. Louis, 1 p.m.

Line: St. Louis by 2 1/2

Five Things To Look For

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1. Twenty-eight teams changing the colors and the look of their uniforms next year. The Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers changed their uniforms this year and, ugly or not, stand a combined 6-0.

2. The eruption of Mt. Ditka. Coach Mike Ditka stuck with Heath Shuler at quarterback this week, then benched rookie running back Troy Davis to start Mario Bates, and in doing so, made it clear he’s not pleased with second-guessers.

“This is my decision,” Ditka snapped. “I’m the coach. The last time I looked I still was the coach.It’s my decision to make these calls.”

3. Things getting worse in Chicago. Besides benching quarterback Erik Kramer, the Bears have had to sit down No. 1 draft pick Walt Harris, their best cornerback a year ago. Harris has been torched for four touchdowns in three games, and the New England Patriots, this week’s opponent, may be getting Terry Glenn back. He has been out because of an ankle injury. James Burton replaces Harris. The Bears would have a much better chance if it were Richard Burton.

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4. Minnesota’s performance against Green Bay. After falling at home to Tampa Bay, Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson made this ridiculous announcement: “Overall, this is probably the best thing for us, to play at Green Bay. Sometimes, when you face something like this, the best thing for you is to play probably the best team in the league.” We’ll see.

5. The Bengals going nowhere on the ground in Denver. Cincinnati is two games away from setting an NFL record: most consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher. They haven’t had one since Harold Green on Dec. 20, 1992--67 games ago.

AROUND THE NFC

EAST

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The Emmitt Smith “He has lost a step” watch has begun. Smith, who scored 115 touchdowns in his first eight seasons, has not scored this year, and has gone five consecutive games without a touchdown. “I’m not worried about that,” Dallas Coach Barry Switzer said. “I assure you he will score a touchdown before the season is over.” Considering the Cowboys’ play, that’s a bold statement. . . . The Arizona Cardinals, who could have been 3-0 if they could only hold onto the ball, have fumbled 11 times, losing the ball seven times. “I’ve mentioned it to our team,” said Coach Vince Tobin. Yup, and not everybody can be an NFL head coach.

What happens when you play for Philadelphia Coach Ray Rhodes and you make a mistake? You lose your job. Cornerback Tim Watson, covering Anthony Miller Monday night when Miller hauled in a touchdown pass in the final minute of the game, was released Tuesday afternoon. What happened? Couldn’t Rhodes find holder Tom Hutton to cut?

He said it: The Giants continue to struggle under Coach Jim Fassel, who announced this week, “Playing for the New York Giants is not like getting appointed to the Supreme Court. It’s not a lifetime appointment, and changes can be made.”

Sidebar: Cardinal rookie offensive lineman Chris Dishman went out of his way to find Washington cornerback Cris Dishman after last week’s game. “It’s not every day you see someone who has the same name as you,” said the younger Dishman. “My sister wrote him a letter when I was in college. He wrote back. I wanted to see if he remembered, and he did.”

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Statistics: The Giants blew four fourth-quarter leads last year, and have blown two more this season. Apparently, Dan Reeves wasn’t the problem.

CENTRAL

Scouting is overrated. Tampa Bay Coach Tony Dungy needed only a minute with Florida State running back Warrick Dunn to learn what he needed. “I asked him what he does best,” Dungy said. “He was real humble and said, ‘Coach, if you want to know, the best thing I do is score.’ That’s when I said, ‘That’s the guy I need.’ We needed points.” . . . The Bears will start Rick Mirer, 2-0 in previous assignments for Seattle against New England, in place of Erik Kramer. “I’m proud of the way I’ve been playing, but sometimes things have to get shaken up in order to light a spark under the entire team,” said Kramer, apparently taking pride in six consecutive losses as a starter.

While at North Carolina, Green Bay fullback William Henderson caught 14 passes in his four seasons. He caught seven last Sunday against Miami. . . . Opponents are averaging 5.8 yards a carry against the Vikings. In their last five regular-season or playoff games dating to 1996, the Vikings’ run defense has allowed an average of nearly 195 yards. That’s not good.

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He said it: “It’s like rubbing a genie bottle,” Kramer said after being replaced by Mirer. “Who knows? Maybe something will pop out.”

Sidebar: The Bears are 0-3. The last time they started 0-3, they went on to finish 1-13, then lost a coin flip and the opportunity to select quarterback Terry Bradshaw. A 1-15 mark this time around might result in a similar faceoff for Peyton Manning.

Statistics: Green Bay running back Dorsey Levens is off to the third-best rushing start in team history. With 292 yards, he trails only Jim Taylor, 323, and Howie Ferguson, 294.

WEST

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Atlanta has had the lead moving into the fourth quarter of all three of its losses. Fans are now being urged to leave before the start of the last quarter. . . . Carolina wide receiver Rocket Ismail has been benched after dropping a pair of long passes from Kerry Collins last week. Too many Rocket hamburgers? Rookie Rae Carruth, Carolina’s first-round pick, takes Ismail’s place. The Panthers will also start Ernie Mills in place of Muhsin Muhammad on the other side because of a broken bone in Muhammad’s wrist.

San Francisco quarterback Steve Young was sacked five times last Sunday but didn’t get hit in the head.

He said it: The Falcons are 0-3 and running back Jamal Anderson doesn’t like it. “Is there some curse over us or something? Who knows? I’m going to start shaking some things up and be real verbal on the field from now on. Who plays football to lose? This is ridiculous. I’m tired of this.”

Sidebar: Reeves began last season 0-3 with the Giants and is 0-3 with the Falcons. He also lost his fourth game in New York.

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Statistics: The Saints have turned the ball over 30 more times than they have recovered it, as a result going 3-16 in their last 19 games.

AROUND THE AFC

WEST

Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe has made remarkable progress in recovering from an ankle injury. “I went to John Elway’s doctor,” Sharpe said. “Any doctor who can heal a guy who who is supposed to be [sidelined] three to four weeks, and he’s throwing in five days, surely has the magical powers to get an old gimpy ankle ready in six or seven days.”

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The Raiders will start two of the three oldest cornerbacks playing the game in Albert Lewis and Lionel Washington, who are 36. The only cornerback older is Washington’s Darrell Green, who is 37. Larry Brown, inactive last week, will probably be used in a reserve role because of Terry McDaniel’s knee injury. . . . The Chargers are down on quarterback Stan Humphries, although he has been hurt much of the season, and has been given no quality running game or Nos. 2 and 3 receivers to help him out. “We are going to go with him,” Coach Kevin Gilbride said. “But it is something we got to get corrected. If it doesn’t, we will have to make some decisions.” Gilbride’s alternatives: Starting Jim Everett or just surrendering.

He said it: Former Atlanta quarterback Jeff George took a victory lap around the Georgia Dome after the Raiders’ victory last Sunday and Falcon linebacker Cornelius Bennett was not pleased: “I wouldn’t allow myself to see such a lack of class. He’s elated to win the football game. But you have to have class. I played with him last year, so I know him. For him to be a selfish player like that [is typical].”

George’s response: “To talk about somebody and say they have no class, that’s coming from a guy who pleaded guilty to something,” George said. Last week Bennett pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual misconduct.

Sidebar: They can fire coach after coach, but somehow the Raiders find a way to keep to their losing ways. This year, the team ranks 30th in defense, 30th against the rush and 28th in points allowed.

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Statistics: In the last 11 NFL seasons, 49 teams have started 3-0. The Broncos are 3-0 and can take heart in the fact that 38 of those teams made the playoffs.

CENTRAL

There must be a lot of things to do in Memphis, because no one seems interested in watching the Ravens play the Oilers. Fewer than 15,000 tickets have been sold for the game Sunday. Don’t they know Vinny Testaverde is playing? . . . He hasn’t received national attention yet as one of the game’s better receivers, but Jacksonville’s Jimmy Smith is putting up big numbers. The Jaguars have won seven consecutive regular-season games and Smith has caught 47 passes for 786 yards and four touchdowns, going over the 100-yard mark in five of those seven outings.

He said it: Baltimore receiver Michael Jackson said earlier that the Giants’ cornerbacks couldn’t cover his team’s receivers, and nothing in last week’s win changed his mind: “I read in the New York papers about all my comments about their cornerbacks not being able to cover us and they can’t. And I’m going to say it again: They don’t have any corners who can cover us.”

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Sidebar: The Steelers started off last year with problems at the quarterback position, and now Kordell Stewart ranks last among all AFC quarterbacks.

Statistics: Although he had to take more than a $100,000 pay cut to remain with Baltimore this year, kicker Matt Stover continues to possess the NFL’s best all-time field goal percentage, having made 133 of 165 kicks, 80.61%.

EAST

The Indianapolis Colts have been outscored, 78-19; rank last in total offense, 23rd in total defense, haven’t scored an offensive touchdown and have surrendered 16 more sacks than they have collected. And Coach Lindy Infante says, “We’ve got our best players on the field.”

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After Keyshawn Johnson dropped a third-down pass for the Jets against New England, quarterback Neil O’Donnell called a fourth-down play for Johnson and told him in the huddle, “Don’t drop the damn ball!” The title of Johnson’s book, in which he takes a swipe at O’Donnell: “Just Give Me the Damn Ball!” Johnson made the catch.

He said it: Colt quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who has been sacked 16 times, says, “There’s no doubt I’m part of the problem. If it helps the team to bench me, let them do it. Nineteen points in three games is just humiliating. We’re playing like a bunch of mules, and maybe I’m the ugliest one out there.”

Sidebar: When Dan Marino plays on his birthday, or during the week after, the Dolphins have gone 11-2. Marino turned 36 last Monday.

Statistics: The Bills have added 32 players to their roster since 1995, and look as if they haven’t been introduced.

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