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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE KEY GAMES IN THE NFL

Game Of The Week

December 13, 1996

NEW ENGLAND (10-4) at DALLAS (9-5)

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

* STORYLINE: So many exciting possibilities. The Patriots, the new blood in the league, can clinch the AFC East Division title with a win. They can also deliver another blow to the Cowboys, who are hanging on for one more Super Bowl push before the great collapse takes root. Dallas would like to avert a final-week trip to Washington to have to win the NFC East title in the last game to be played in RFK Stadium.

* PATRIOT UPDATE: New England has won 10 of its last 12 games and has one of the game's hottest quarterbacks in Drew Bledsoe, a solid running game with Curtis Martin and a defense ranked No. 7 in stopping the run.

* COWBOY UPDATE: There are rumors circulating that Dallas is going to be hit again with more drug suspensions. The strange signing of offensive lineman Derek Kennard this week raised suspicions even more.

* EDGE TO DALLAS: The Cowboys have repeatedly risen from the dead this season to remain in position to seek a fourth Super Bowl in five years.

* THE LINE: Dallas by 5.

KEY GAMES

SAN FRANCISCO (10-4) at PITTSBURGH (10-4)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 10 a.m., Channel 11.

* STORYLINE: The Steelers are in danger of losing the home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs to New England, and the 49ers are close to being toppled as an NFC West Division dynasty by Carolina.

* 49ER UPDATE: Quarterback Steve Young appears to have regained his championship form, but the defense fell apart last week at a time when San Francisco needed it most.

* STEELER UPDATE: Running back Jerome Bettis has an injured ankle, and although Pittsburgh is at home, relying on quarterback Mike Tomczak might make for an unsettling day.

* EDGE TO SAN FRANCISCO: The 49ers will spend much of the day watching the scoreboard and results from Carolina.

* THE LINE: San Francisco by 2 1/2.

OAKLAND (7-7) at DENVER (12-2)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m., Channel 4.

* STORYLINE: The Raiders are trying to save their season, while the Broncos are trying to figure out how to stay sharp with nothing to play for after clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Broncos played hard for a half last week but might be pushed harder this week by hometown faithful in Mile High Stadium.

* RAIDER UPDATE: Napoleon Kaufman, who is averaging 6.1 yards a carry, finally has entrenched himself as the team's starting running back.

* BRONCO UPDATE: Quarterback John Elway is expected to start despite a sore hamstring, but one tweak and he's out of there.

* EDGE TO OAKLAND: The Raiders should benefit from an opponent looking ahead to playoffs.

* THE LINE: Denver by 6.

INDIANAPOLIS (8-6) at KANSAS CITY (9-5)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m.

* STORYLINE: On this week's episode of "ER" we visit the Colts and Chiefs, two teams with bruised feelings as well as an array of injuries to key performers. Who copes best with not having their best performers on the field?

* COLT UPDATE: Although Paul Justin guided the Colts to a rousing win over Philadelphia last week, Jim Harbaugh will return from an injured knee to start for Indianapolis at quarterback.

* CHIEF UPDATE: Indianapolis proved earlier this season it can win when banged up, and now Kansas City gets to test its courage and team depth. The defensive line appears the most vulnerable because of injuries, giving Colt running back Marshall Faulk an opportunity for a big day up the middle.

* EDGE TO INDIANAPOLIS: That's assuming last week's victory over the Eagles wasn't a fluke. The Colts came on strong last season in situations like this and went all the way to the AFC championship game. The Chiefs have gone into the tank, don't know who should be playing quarterback, and now there are questions swirling around the future of General Manager Carl Peterson and Coach Marty Schottenheimer.

* THE LINE: Kansas City by 5 1/2.

BUFFALO (9-5) at MIAMI (6-8)

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

* STORYLINE: Dolphin Coach Jimmy Johnson said the team will scrap Don Shula's playbook next year. If he's so smart, why didn't he think of that this year? Buffalo has been trying to hang on for one last hurrah, but without that home-field blizzard advantage, it doesn't appear the Bills will get the boost they need to go far in the playoffs.

* BILL UPDATE: Quarterback Jim Kelly has a sore hamstring and is facing a wounded animal in Johnson's Miami team, which will get a Monday night TV appearance to redeem itself nationally.

* DOLPHIN UPDATE: Quarterback Dan Marino has thrown five interceptions in the last two games, and now there's talk of going to Craig Erickson.

* EDGE TO BUFFALO: Its senior citizens aren't ready yet to retire.

* THE LINE: Pick 'em.

THE LINE ON THE REST

Philadelphia minus 7 at N.Y. Jets

San Diego plus 3 at Chicago

St. Louis 5 at Atlanta

Green Bay minus 8 at Detroit

New Orleans plus 7 at N.Y. Giants

Tampa Bay plus 6 at Minnesota

Cincinnati plus 3 1/2 at Houston

Baltimore plus 8 at Carolina

Washington minus 3 at Arizona

Seattle plus 5 at Jacksonville

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