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PATRIOTS A WORRY FOR AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS

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The playoffs got a little scarier for some of the favorites on Saturday because Detroit, Green Bay and New England all made it.

Pittsburgh and the other more experienced AFC playoff teams are worried about the Patriots because:1) Their coach is Bill Parcells, who is 8-3 in playoff games, including two Super Bowl wins with the Giants. "He's not here just to get us to the playoffs. He's here to get us to the Super Bowl and win it," said linebacker Vincent Brown, one of the few veterans left from the pre-Parcells years.

2) They have a lot of young talent, led by Drew Bledsoe and Ben Coates. On Saturday, Coates set a single-season reception record for a tight end with 96.

The star factor also plays into the NFC sleepers, the Lions and Packers, although San Francisco and Dallas remain heavy favorites to meet at Candlestick Jan. 15 in the NFC Championship.

Detroit has Barry Sanders to run the ball, Herman Moore to catch it, Chris Spielman to stuff the run and - not to be ignored - Mel Gray to scare a team every time it kicks. If Dave Krieg, a hot and cold quarterback throughout his careerm stays hot, he can hurt defenses stacked to stop Sanders.

Don't forget that Detroit went into Dallas on a Monday night earlier this year and beat the Cowboys in overtime.

The Packers? Brett Favre blossomed this season as a star young quarterback to go with Bledsoe and Troy Aikman; Sterling Sharpe continued to blossom and Edgar Bennett gave the Packers some running. They finally came up with a big win when they needed it, Saturday's 34-19 victory at Tampa against a team that had won four straight.

None of this is lost on the NFC's front-runners, San Francisco and Dallas.

Some of the Cowboys tried to write off Saturday's 15-10 loss to the New York Giants as an "oh, well" game. Emmitt Smith was out, Aikman played less than a half, and the Cowboys couldn't get a higher playoff berth. Even some Giants thought the Cowboys were playing to not to get hurt.

But Dallas finished the regular season with two losses in its last three games and played less than scintillating football in its win at New Orleans last Monday night.

So look to Detroit, New England and Green Bay to cause some trouble. And one other sleeper, Kansas City, because who knows what miracles are left in the arm of the battered Montana.