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THEY COULD HAVE BEEN CONTENDERS

Atlanta at Green Bay, 10 a.m., Channel 11. Picture, if you can, a pro football world in which the Falcons did not trade Brett Favre to the Packers in 1992, recognized the unpolished gem they had and locked him up with a series of long-term contracts. The Falcons, running roughshod over the NFC West. The Falcons, ruining John Elway’s sentimental journey into retirement at Super Bowl III. Jerry Glanville, bottomless font of NFL wisdom. Oh, snap out of it already. This was the real world last week against Dallas: The Falcons, alternating Michael Vick and Doug Johnson on every other play.

The line: Green Bay by 10.

OH, HE MOST CERTAINLY WILL, POPS

Cleveland at Baltimore, 10 a.m. Favre and Tim Couch are two quarterbacks that have defeated the Ravens this season--and Couch reportedly was a bit miffed when Baltimore Coach Brian Billick refused to compare the Browns’ third-year quarterback with the Packers’ All-Pro. Billick, who simply cannot let any issue rest: “I thought [Couch] was a good quarterback. I understand he takes offense that I’m not quite ready to put him in the Hall of Fame. Maybe I’m alone in that. He’s a fine young quarterback. But the Hall of Fame, I’m sorry, Tim, don’t mean to diss you this way, but the Hall of Fame is still a little ways away. If you need that to get motivated, then have at it, son.”

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The line: Baltimore by 8.

ON THAT, FIVE OUT OF FIVE DOCTORS WOULD AGREE

Indianapolis at New Orleans, 10 a.m. Edgerrin James is done for the season, ESPN.com reports, after being told his injured knee requires surgery. Not satisfied, James went to his old college doctor for a second opinion, who told him the same thing. In a related story, the Colts refused to seek a second opinion when Jim Mora interrupted a film session to report, “Our defense really stinks.”

The line: New Orleans by 51/2.

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HE WHO HESITATES GOES 2-14

Philadelphia at Dallas, 10 a.m. Which matches the No. 2 pick in the 1999 draft, Donovan McNabb, against the No. 2 pick in the 1998 draft, Ryan Leaf. Statistical breakdown: Do we really have to go there? Leaf, who trails McNabb in every meaningful category except golf handicap, has this to say in his defense: “There’s things that I wish I would have done differently. There’s plenty of fault on my part. But I think the San Diego organization did some things improperly as well.” He’s right, you know. The Chargers should have cut him two years earlier.

The line: Philadelphia by 7.

HARDER STILL WITHOUT A RUNNING BACK

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San Francisco at Carolina, 10 a.m. Chris Weinke’s throwing shoulder still hurts, but when George Seifert asked for volunteers to start at quarterback today for the Panthers, Matt Lytle and Jim Harbaugh both took big steps backward, pulling that old veteran fast one on the naive rookie. Works every time. “By no means,” Weinke says, “is being a quarterback in the NFL easy.” Quick learner, this kid.

The line: San Francisco by 7.

VAN PELT FAN CLUB OFF TO A ROUSING START

Seattle at Buffalo, 10 a.m. In Buffalo, reaction to Rob Johnson’s broken collarbone is sharply divided. Bill Coach Gregg Williams was glum, saying, “It’s your starting quarterback--I don’t know how much more significant an injury it can be.” That’s precisely our point, said raucous Bill fans as they danced beneath a cloud of flying chicken wings and raised foaming tankards to beer to toast ... what’s the name of our No. 2 guy ... oh, right, it says right here ... “Here’s to Alex Van Pelt!”

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The line: Seattle by 31/2.

WHOEVER SAID “YOU MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK,” PLEASE PASS IT ALONG TO JEFF FISHER

Tennessee at Cincinnati, 10 a.m. It’s been a most unlucky season for the Titans. A quarterback sneak up the middle?!? Tailback Eddie George has been banged up from the start. Into the belly of a stacked Raven defensive line?!? Quarterback Steve McNair continues to be bothered by a sore thumb. One yard for the win and they run head-on straight into the Great Wall of Siragusa?!? And now tight end Frank Wycheck is questionable for today’s game. You study film and tendencies all year long and that’s the best you can do there? Really, this Titan team has been star-crossed.

The line: Cincinnati by 2.

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ESPECIALLY AT HIS AGE

San Diego at Oakland, 1 p.m., Channel 2. This matchup looked much more enticing a week ago, before the Chargers lost to Denver and the Raiders to Seattle. The Raiders, being the Raiders, figure that was just a fluke. The Chargers, meanwhile, have to find a way to re-charge the battery of quarterback/conversation piece Doug Flutie, who runs three miles after every practice, threw four interceptions against the Broncos and has not had a quarterback rating higher than 27.7 since October. A suggestion, if I may, Chargers: no more three-mile runs.

The line: Oakland by 9.

MEANWHILE, JOHN MADDEN LIKES LLEYTON HEWITT IN THE 2002 AUSTRALIAN OPEN

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Jacksonville at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. The Jaguars beat the Steelers in the season opener and are coming off a 30-13 victory over Cincinnati. The Steelers are 5-1 since then and have the league’s No. 1 defense and rushing offense. How to bet this one? Well, Martina Navratilova writes in USA Today (no kidding) that the Jaguars have “played better than their record, having scored 16 more points than they’ve allowed. With a couple of breaks they could be 5-3. Give the Steelers the home-field edge.” There you go.

The line: Pittsburgh by 51/2.

TRY COUNTING MISSED TACKLES, THAT MIGHT WORK

Chicago at Tampa Bay, 1:15 p.m., Channel 11. Warren Sapp, on the state of the 4-4 and wobbling Buccaneers: “I’ve never seen chemistry make a tackle. I’ve never seen chemistry catch a pass or make the proper line call or anything like that. We’re talking about humans, about a job that has to be done. And when you’re not doing the job, it’s going to be pointed out to you. It’s nothing to lose sleep over. This team is going to be fine.” What Warren really means, Buccaneer fans, it’s something to lose sleep over.

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The line: Tampa Bay by 51/2.

AND TO A LION FAN, FANTASY FOOTBALL MEANS ‘1-8'

Detroit at Arizona, 1:15 p.m. How You Measure Success When You’re A Cardinal: Raving about wide receiver David Boston, who somehow leads the NFC in receiving yards with 864, Jake Plummer says, “I think the country is starting to learn about what he can do. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who come up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got David on my fantasy team and he’s tearing it up.”’ And then, they sometimes add, “I practically stole him from a guy in my league. Traded Jake Plummer for him.”

The line: Arizona by 11/2.

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BUT ALL RECORDS ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN

Washington at Denver, 1:15 p.m. For the 31st time in their last 39 games, the Broncos will play this one without Terrell Davis, sidelined again after his latest round of arthroscopic knee surgery. That’s two surgeries this season, one on each knee, which prompted Bronco beat writers to drop the name of Davis’ much-scarred former teammate, lineman Mark Schlereth, who retired after undergoing his 29th operation. “Don’t even say that name,” Davis shot back, fearing potential curse. “I’m 20 surgeries away from his record.”

The line: Denver by 81/2.

IT’S A MOST VALUABLE THUMB, FINGERS CROSSED

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St. Louis at New England, 5:30 p.m., ESPN. Now that the Rams have a defense--fourth-ranked in the NFL after eight games--Kurt Warner has a sprained thumb, which is how the ghost of Pete Rozelle maintains parity these days. Warner’s thumb is a most important digit, the only thing separating Jamie Martin from the steering wheel of the St. Louis Super Bowl Express. So Coach Mike Martz walks around the Rams’ training facility, telling any writer he sees, “His thumb feels real good. I think he’s a little surprised how good it feels, to be honest with you.”

The line: St. Louis by 8.

TWO WORDS: SELL NOW

New York Giants at Minnesota, Monday, 6 p.m., Channel 7. Uh-oh. Last time the Vikings were favored in a game against the Giants, Kerry Collins swapped bodies with Y.A. Tittle and Minnesota lost the NFC championship game, 41-0. Since then, according to informed sources, Collins has been returned to his original pod. But now, Robert Smith has gone missing from the Vikings, and Randy Moss and Cris Carter have set off to look for him.

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The line: Minnesota by 2.


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