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Tampa Bay losses no sign of collapse

You want to know something unbelievable? The race for supremacy in Florida and in the Central Division of the NFC are both dead heats - and the Tampa Bay Bucs are in each race instead of contending for next year's No. 1 pick in the draft.

However . . .(There had to be a "however," because, after all, we're talking about the Bucs here.)

. . . The Bucs have lost their last two games. Is this the beginning of another tragic end for Tampa Bay?

No, it's not.

Truth is, the Bucs only have three games they should lose, although one of the three happens Sunday. And all three are in Tampa (Minnesota on Sunday, New England on Nov. 16 and Green Bay on Dec. 7), so they could win one or more of those.

They shouldn't lose a road game unless they choke against either of the East Rutherford teams.

Jacksonville and Miami? They should make the playoffs, too, although the Jags do have a difficult road schedule. The Flounders have three tough games left - the Patriots at home and on the road, and a road trip to Oakland - but the rest of their schedule is melting vanilla.

NFC Central? Right to the wire as Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Minnesota should all be 11-5 or 10-6. The good news is that the rest of the conference is so bad that all three will make the playoffs.

DENVER (6-1) at BUFFALO (4-3): Broncos favored by 7. . . . Thank goodness this isn't a Super Bowl. Nobody would win. . . . Horses by just 3.

CHICAGO (0-7) at MIAMI (5-2): Flounders favored by 9. . . . If you stayed up past midnight, then you know if there's a seventh game of the World Series, this classic matchup bumps to Monday Night Lite. Bears suggested they'd just as well forget the whole thing, but Flounders said they'd like to play the game Sunday and Monday. . . . Flounders by 15 either day.

JACKSONVILLE (5-2) at PITTSBURGH (5-2): Steelers favored by 3. . . . Have you forgotten the Jags' 30-21 victory earlier? How QB Mark Brunell passed for 303 yards? How Steelers' would-be winning field goal was blocked and returned for a Jags TD on the final play? Well, maybe you forgot - but Steelers coach Bill Cowher hasn't. He won't be kissy-kissy today. . . . Revenge is a dish best served cold. . . . Steelers by 6.

ATLANTA (1-6) at CAROLINA (3-4): Panthers favored by 81/2. . . . I have nothing funny to say about these teams. They speak for themselves. . . . Panthers by 12.

MINNESOTA (5-2) at TAMPA BAY (5-2): Bucs favored by 3. . . . Vikings coach Dennis Green has a book coming out Monday called "No Room for Crybabies." The timing is weird, especially considering Green hints that the final chapter includes "a bombshell, too hot to even talk about now." . . . Vikes better get their upset Sunday before the distractions begin. . . . In a Books-A-Million Upset Special, Vikes by 2.

DALLAS (4-3) at PHILADELPHIA (3-4): No favorite. . . . Cowboys coach Barry Switzer knew he needed to say something inspirational about his team's chances of returning to the Super Bowl. So he came up with this: "If we survive, we've got just about as good a chance as all those other average teams out there.". . . Bravo, coach, bravo! You brought tears to my eyes. . . . Eagles by 4.

CINCINNATI (1-6) at EAST RUTHERFORD GIANTS (5-3): Giants favored by 51/2. . . . Speaking of positive statements, Bengals coach Bruce Coslet was asked to evaluate his little darlings: "We can't run. We can't pass. We can't stop the run. We can't stop the pass. We can't kick. Other than that . . ." . . . Uh, Bruce, weren't the Bengals 1-6 last year when Dave Shula got the old heave-ho? . . . Giants by 7.

BALTIMORE (3-4) at WASHINGTON (4-3): Native Americans favored by 6 . . . Interesting cross-conference matchup of Ravens' No. 1 passing game vs. NA's No. 1 pass defense. Washington's Marvcus Patton says you can't relax for an instant: "I make the analogy to wounded animals, who will bite you when they're backed into a corner." . . . Nah, the Ravens' QB is Vinny Testaverde, not Marv Albert. . . . Native Americans by 9.

KANSAS CITY (5-2) at ST. LOUIS (2-5): Chiefs favored by 51/2. . . . Dissension has hit the Rams, led by WR Isaac Bruce, who called the offense "stepchildren" of the defense, whatever that means. Responded coach Dick Vermeil: "There's no place in Isaac Bruce's contract that says he's a coach or a critic." . . . I don't have it in my contract either, but it sure is fun. . . . Snickering Chiefs by 7.

SAN FRANCISCO (6-1) at NEW ORLEANS (2-6): 49ers favored by 14. . . . Who made this 49ers schedule, Steve Young? . . . Hey, Saints coach Mike Ditka was on a "Saturday Night Live" skit with fat George Wendt and fatter Chris Farley. Rumor has it they will be his No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks Sunday. . . . Still, casual 49ers by just 10.

TENNESSEE (3-4) at ARIZONA (1-6): Cards favored by 11/2. . . . Cards are starting QB Jake "The Snake" Plummer. Coach Vince Tobin says: "He has something inside of him that's kind of contagious." . . . Geez, I'm not getting in the huddle with this guy. Of course, I'm not going to sack him either. . . . Infectious Cards by 3.

INDIANAPOLIS (0-7) at SAN DIEGO (3-4): Chargers favored by 6. . . . Out of column space and nobody cares anyway. . . . Chargers by just 1.

OAKLAND (3-4) at SEATTLE (4-3): SeaTurkeys favored by 2. . . . Jeff George, Tim Brown and Napoleon Kaufman? Get real. . . . In a Who-Are-They-Kidding Upset Special, Raiders by 7.

GREEN BAY (5-2) at NEW ENGLAND (5-2): Monday night TV. Patriots favored by 2. . . . Super Bowl XXXI1/2. . . . Heh-heh-heh. Heh-heh-heh. . . . Patriots by 14.