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SPORTS WEEKEND

Game Of The Week

The Key Games In The Nfl

December 06, 1996

CAROLINA (9-4) at SAN FRANCISCO (10-3)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m., Channel 11.

* STORYLINE: The Panthers could shock the world. They have already beaten the 49ers once this season, and another victory would provide them with the tiebreaking edge with two games to play to clinch the NFC West Division title, and maybe home-field advantage through the playoffs. Carolina has not lost at home this season and finishes with home games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

* PANTHER UPDATE: Carolina has given up one touchdown and only 19 points in the last 15 quarters; San Francisco scores that many in the first half.

* 49ER UPDATE: Kerry Collins starts at quarterback for the Panthers and will have to escape the sack-happy crew of Bryant Young (10 sacks), Roy Barker (10 1/2) and Chris Doleman (9 1/2).

* EDGE TO SAN FRANCISCO: The 49ers have played in big games before, they are home, and they have a healthy Steve Young. Key to San Francisco's success: Keeping Young injury free.

* THE LINE: San Francisco by 9.

KEY GAMES

SAN DIEGO (7-6) at PITTSBURGH (9-4)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 10 a.m.

* STORYLINE: Who knows which Charger team will show up? The one that lost to Tampa Bay and was blasted by New England at home? Or the one that punished the Chiefs in Kansas City? San Diego will be without quarterback Stan Humphries because of a concussion, and has been without a running game all season.

* CHARGER UPDATE: Sean Salisbury will start for Humphries, but the key to San Diego's success will be how successful running back Leonard Russell can be against the NFL's fifth-ranked defense.

* STEELER UPDATE: Pittsburgh continues to lose players and will be without safety Carnell Lake, who has an injured knee, and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen because of an inured arch.

* EDGE TO PITTSBURGH: Even though the Chargers were embarrassed a week ago, and as a rule most NFL teams respond favorably after being humiliated, the Steelers were savaged by Baltimore last week, and they should be just as angry.

* THE LINE: Pittsburgh by 10.

*

MINNESOTA (7-6) at DETROIT (5-8)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 5 p.m., ESPN.

* STORYLINE: It's an important game for the Vikings, who are scrambling to catch the final wild-card berth in the NFC. As for the Lions, the only question that remains is will they quit now that it's obvious Coach Wayne Fontes has no miracles left?

* VIKING UPDATE: Who is Brad Johnson? He played for the London Monarchs in the World League in 1995, and he's the guy who has made Warren Moon expendable.

* LION UPDATE: Fontes' record in December is 20-8, but it no longer matters because Detroit is no longer scrambling to save his job and trying to slip into the playoffs.

* EDGE TO DETROIT: The hunch is Fontes will go out kicking.

* THE LINE: Detroit by 2 1/2.

*

DENVER (12-1) at GREEN BAY (10-3)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 10 a.m., Channel 4.

* STORYLINE: This would have been the game of the week if the Broncos hadn't been so successful and everyone else hadn't been so obliging by allowing Denver to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs already. Denver quarterback John Elway will probably rest his sore hamstring, giving the Packers the opportunity to maintain NFC bragging rights. The next time they meet, however, could be in neutral New Orleans, and probably an injury-free Elway will be gunning for the AFC's first Super Bowl win in 13 years.

* BRONCO UPDATE: Left offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman will sit out the game because of shoulder surgery, which further puts the quarterback at risk. Bill Musgrave will probably be sent out for Elway as the sacrificial lamb. The Broncos, who have the third-ranked defense in the NFL, are ranked No. 1 against the rush and No. 9 against the pass. Last week they held Seattle to 277 total yards on only 48 plays.

* PACKER UPDATE: Green Bay can clinch a second consecutive NFC Central Division title with a win or a Minnesota loss, and that gives the Packers the incentive the Broncos lack in this contest. The Packers have won 25 of their last 26 games, including playoffs, at Lambeau Field, dating to 1993. They have the NFL's second-ranked defense.

* EDGE TO GREEN BAY: Denver won't have to flash its magic again until Jan. 4, when it is host for a first-round playoff game.

* THE LINE: Green Bay by 8 1/2.

*

KANSAS CITY (9-4) at OAKLAND (6-7)

* KICKOFF: Monday, 6 p.m., Channel 7.

* STORYLINE: At this rate, America will get in the habit of no longer watching TV on Monday nights. Last Monday, the 49ers punished the Falcons. This Monday, who cares? The Chiefs have been listless in defeat and boring in victory. The Raiders figure they can win out--with games the next two weeks against an unmotivated Denver and an uninspired Seattle. Let 'em dream.

* CHIEF UPDATE: Wonder where Kansas City would be had it started Rich Gannon all season? They'd be looking to Steve Bono about now. Defensively, the Chiefs are yielding 317.2 yards per game.

* RAIDER UPDATE: Quarterback Jeff Hostetler has thrown 18 touchdowns in 1996, two fewer than personal-best 20 accomplished in 1994. Joe Aska averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the team's first seven games but hasn't carried the ball since Oct. 13. They're saving him for the playoffs.

* EDGE TO OAKLAND: The Raiders are just good enough to tease everyone with a late-season rally only to fall short. And the Chiefs are duds.

* THE LINE: Oakland by 2.

THE LINE ON THE REST

N.Y. Giants plus 7 at Miami

St. Louis plus 6 1/2 at Chicago

Baltimore plus 3 at Cincinnati

Atlanta plus 2 1/2 at New Orleans

Washington minus 3 at Tampa Bay

Jacksonville plus 6 at Houston

Dallas minus 10 at Arizona

N.Y. Jets plus 13 at New England

Buffalo minus 4 1/2 at Seattle

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