THE GRADUATE

A month ago New England rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe felt certain that his injured left knee was healthy enough to allow him to play. But coach Bill Parcells kept him on the bench, and Bledsoe's tender knee was not the only issue. The young man from Walla Walla, Wash., had been pouting about not seeing action, and Parcells felt that he wasn't preparing as aggressively as an NFL quarterback should. So Parcells did what a coach who has won two Super Bowls should do to a 21-year-old kid. He read him the riot act. He told him, at a high decibel level, that no lackadaisical millionaire kid was going to tell him when he was ready to play.

"With Coach Parcells," Bledsoe said on Sunday night after another Patriot disaster, a 6-0 loss to the Jets, "you listen to the message, not the delivery. I looked him right in the eye and listened. The message worked."

"Drew used to be an 8:30, 8:45 a.m. sleepyhead kid," Parcells said. "Now he's in at 7:15, 7:30 every day, the way a young kid who needs to learn the game has to be. I like that."

Don't misunderstand. Bledsoe's a great kid, polite and accommodating to his growing legion of young New England fans. But he has to learn. He's young. He bites his nails. He doesn't need to shave much. He dresses like he's on his way to see Pearl Jam. He's so stunned by his sudden wealth that he gave his 15-year-old brother, Adam, the toll-free number and the password for his bank account and had Adam call it just to hear the incredible balance amount intoned by the computer voice.

Yes, he's a kid, and he sometimes needs to be reminded that this is a merciless, smack-you-in-the-mouth business. Rookies need that extra 90 minutes of film study each weekday morning to review things like Jet safety Ronnie Lott's blitz tendencies. And that was what Bledsoe was studying early each morning last week.

In Sunday's loss, which was in no way Bledsoe's fault, we witnessed the fruits of that education and a healthy measure of the ability that will make Bledsoe an NFL star. Midway through the third quarter, with a 35-mile-per-hour wind gusting to 68, with the rain driving horizontally into Bledsoe's face mask, the rookie brought his team to the line on second-and-seven at the Patriot 23. Bledsoe fired a dart through the monsoon to wideout Michael Timpson for 24 yards. Two plays later Bledsoe play-actioned right, sprinted out left and threw across his body on the run, a 23-yard line drive into the chest of wideout Vincent Brisby.

Then, on third-and-four from the Jet 24, New York blitzed the house at Bledsoe. Up the middle, untouched, came middle linebacker Glenn Cadrez. Two months ago Bledsoe would have thrown the ball away. On Sunday he waited until the last possible moment, and just as he was about to get plowed under by Cadrez, he dumped a pass to running back Leonard Russell. The play lost four yards, and the Patriots had to punt because of the wind, but the point is this: Bledsoe got his clock cleaned, yet he made a professional play, the way the Simmses and the Aikmans make professional plays in the face of an imminent smack in the mouth.

Toiling anonymously in pro football's Siberia, the NFL's top draft pick of 1993 is making quiet progress. "I haven't done anything too bad or anything too good so far, but I know I can be a good quarterback at this level," said the wind-chapped Bledsoe after his 10-of-18, 134-yard day spent throwing into the teeth of a nor' easter. "People have to remember I'm the foundation. I'm not everything."

"I think he could be special," said Lott, who has now faced Bledsoe twice. "He's a lot further along than the young quarterbacks I've seen come into the league in recent years." In the midst of the annual disaster that is Patriot football, there's finally reason to hope for something other than a high draft choice.

THE TRUTH ABOUT BARRY

The Detroit franchise, Barry Sanders, sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on Thanksgiving, but the reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. Look for him to return on either Dec. 19 against the 49ers or the following week at Chicago. "Seeing him in the locker room, you wouldn't know he was hurt," coach Wayne Fontes said on Monday afternoon.

The Lions without Sanders aren't exactly the Bulls without Jordan, but it's close. At the age of 25, after only 73 NFL games, Sanders has already amassed 6,789 rushing yards. He has accounted for an average of 112 yards of offense in each game during his five seasons, and now it's Fontes's job to convince his team that it can beat Minnesota and Phoenix without Sanders. "A lot of people are counting us out," Fontes said. "But we've won without [tackle] Lomas Brown, [wide receiver] Herman Moore, [linebacker] Pat Swilling. We can win without Barry." Those other guys aren't the best in the league at what they do. Sanders is.

STATS OF THE WEEK

•The Vikings have lost three straight home games for the first time since the bleak (3-13) season of 1984.

•On Nov. 21 Raider kicker Jeff Jaeger made four field goals as L.A. beat San Diego 12-7. On Sunday, Jaeger missed four field goals, and the Raiders lost to Cincinnati 16-10.

•The Dolphins are 11-0 against NFC teams at Joe Robbie Stadium since 1987, the year the stadium was opened.

DISPATCHES

The struggling Buffalo offense failed to score more than one touchdown for the seventh time this season in Sunday's 23-7 thumping in Kansas City. Buffalo's problem is that theirs was a speed offense built by Ted Marchibroda around weapons like James Lofton, Keith McKeller, Don Beebe and Andre Reed. The Bill philosophy remains the same, but, with the exception of Reed, the cast has changed: Lofton has been waived, McKeller is out with a knee injury and Beebe has a bum hamstring. Tight end Pete Metzelaars is productive but slow, and wideout Billy Brooks is more a possession receiver than a speed burner....

The Bengals are close to completing a deal with the city of Cincinnati that would add at least 50 luxury boxes and 5,000 seats to Riverfront Stadium and would keep the team in Cincinnati until at least 2010....

How dismal is it to be a Redskin this season? Desperate for offense on Sunday against Philadelphia, Washington coach Richie Petitbon called what turned out to be the ugliest play of this season: a fake-punt set-shot lob pass from blocking back Brian Mitchell over the line of scrimmage to Todd Bowles. Ooops. Interception....

Nice day for the Allen family on Sunday. Kansas City back Marcus Allen scored his 10th touchdown of the season—best in the AFC—in the Chiefs' 23-7 win over Buffalo. His brother Damon, the quarterback for the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos, was MVP of the Grey Cup, the league's title game, with a 226-yard passing day in Edmonton's 33-23 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers....

In the 49ers' 35-10 win over the Rams on Sunday, Steve Young threw for 462 yards. Jerry Rice caught eight passes for 166 yards, and John Taylor caught six for 150. Ricky Watters gained 129 yards rushing and receiving. And, said Watters, "we're just beginning to show how great we are. The key to our greatness is that we'll never be satisfied."

...The Bengals, 1-10, enter this Sunday night's game at San Francisco—the prime-time mismatch of the '90s—on a one-game winning streak. "They'll be terrified of us, I'm sure," said Cincinnati quarterback David Klingler....

Minnesota lost Sunday because New Orleans's Tyrone Hughes returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and in the final minute a holding call negated what would have been the tying field goal by Fuad Reveiz. Said Viking wideout Cris Carter, "Same old thing with the special teams. They're just killing us."

GAME OF THE WEEK
New York Giants at Miami, Sunday. Over the last 20 years the Giants and the Dolphins have played once—a 20-3 Giant win in 1990—and New York has never played a regular-season game in Miami. The 9-2 Dolphins are atop the AFC, but beware the luck of the Giants. Kickoff specialist Brad Daluiso, in his sixth NFL uniform at age 25, had only two field goals in his career when he entered Sunday's game against Phoenix with 37 seconds left. Boom! Daluiso hit a 54-yarder down the middle, and the Giants won 19-17.

THE END ZONE
Giant quarterback Phil Simms woke up with an inner ear infection on Sunday before the Giants were to play Phoenix. His wife, Diana, was all sympathy. "You better suck it up," she told Phil. "This is a big game." Simms, who played while on medication, dutifully threw for a season-high 337 yards in the Giants' win.

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PHOTORICK STEWARTThough New England has been dreadful this season, Bledsoe is beginning to stand tall. PHOTOBILL FRAKESDale Carter had one of three picks for the Chiefs as the Bills' offense sputtered again. PHOTO

A SHIFT IN POWER

NEWS FLASH: The AFC is better than the NFC. O.K., the 49ers and the Cowboys are the league's two best teams, but SI's Top 10 lists six straight AFC teams after the big two. The Bills this season have beaten the last three Super Bowl winners—the Giants, the Redskins and the Cowboys—holding them to a total of 34 points. The Dolphins, with three starting quarterbacks, have swept their three NFC East opponents, outgaining them by an average of 83 yards.

SI'S TOP 10

1 San Francisco

8-3

Joe who?

2 Dallas

7-4

Live and Lett live, says Jimmy Johnson.

3 Miami

9-2

Dolphins look solid for home field playoff edge.

4 Kansas City

8-3

Super Bowl bound if Montana's hammy cooperates.

5 Buffalo

8-3

Bills are better than they're playing.

6 Houston

7-4

We do not believe. Nope. No way.

7 Pittsburgh

6-5

Last two weeks: opponents 60, Steelers 16.

8 N.Y. Jets

7-4

Allowed nine points per game in five-game win streak.

9 N.Y. Giants

8-3

Thank you, Brad Daluiso.

10 Denver

7-4

John Elway has never been better.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)