No, I'm not going to get into a long analysis of which of the
three teams sitting atop the NFC Central has the most favorable
remaining schedule, because this is meaningless. They've all
proved they can beat anybody and lose to anybody. Inconsistency
is the watchword for this division, but as Lou Holtz said, "The
only people who are consistent are dead people."

If you're figuring, What the heck, anybody can have an off day,
let me throw a statistic at you that is still one of my
favorites: In the Steelers' eight-year playoff run under Chuck
Noll, from 1972 through '79, their record against teams with
losing records--not at the time Pittsburgh played them, but the
way they ended up--was an astonishing 50-1. The Steelers simply
refused to get beaten by the Indianapolises of this world.

I'm fascinated by the NFC Central, though, because it's so weird
to handicap. The Packers, the Vikings and the Bucs are all 8-3.
Green Bay and Minnesota got stunned on Sunday, Tampa Bay came up
big. Detroit, which slaughtered the Vikings, should logically be
out of the running at 5-6, but with all the firepower the Lions
can unload, don't be too sure.

The Packers finally get the Cowboys at home after seven straight
losses to them on the road, counting the postseason. This leads
me to believe that revenge might figure in the equation. Nothing
figured in it last weekend, when the Pack was stunned by the
winless Colts. The only way I can deal with this is to fall back
on a cliche--they took the day off--which I hate to do because
it doesn't give the opponent enough credit.

The defense was supposedly the Packers' rock, especially after
Mike Holmgren gave them their mid-October bye week off to rest
their legs. The offense made people nervous, so much so that
Holmgren canceled Brett Favre's weekly press conferences because
he felt folks were too hard on Favre, choosing to dwell on the
three interceptions he'd thrown in the previous two weeks rather
than the fact that the Pack had won both games.

So what happened? Paul Justin and the Indianapolis offense
smacked the Packers for 467 yards, the most Green Bay has given
up in 10 years. Packers cornerback Doug Evans, who'd had such
sterling games against the Lions' Herman Moore and the Rams'
Isaac Bruce, had all sorts of miseries against Marvin Harrison.
Reggie White, in and out of the game with an ailing back, had
only two tackles and no quarterback pressures against Tony
Mandarich. The offense everyone was worried about lit it up with
441 yards, averaging better than 10 yards a play. Go figure.

I can't see Green Bay losing to Dallas. The Cowboys pulled
themselves together for a late 97-yard drive against the
Redskins just as things were looking grim, then closed the game
out with a short drive for a field goal. You can get 97-yard
drives at home, but not at Lambeau Field, with the noise factor
and cheese factor and everything. The Cowboys are 1-5 on the
road. Their offensive line is banged up, but I'll switch my pick
if Nate Newton promises to do the Lambeau Leap.

The Vikings, riding a six-game winning streak, got overrun by
the Lions, who were down on their quarterback, Scott Mitchell.
Mitchell was said to be coming back from a hamstring pull,
except that nobody really knew if he was coming back at all or
if the hamstring was just a convenient excuse for benching him
the previous week against the Redskins. This is a troubled team,
you see, but the Lions toyed with the Minnesota defense in their
38-15 rout, and when the Vikings brought strong safety Robert
Griffith up into the box to stop the run, Detroit burned them
with passes to Herman Moore and Johnny Morton. When Griffith
dropped back, Barry Sanders got his yards.

Now Minnesota faces the Jets in the Meadowlands, where it gets
real nasty this time of year--a dome team braving the great
outdoors. Still, I like the Vikes to beat the Jets. Why? Because
their rush will create all sorts of problems for Neil O'Donnell,
who's replacing the injured Glenn Foley; because New York
doesn't have a running game to take the heat off; and because it
was the Jets' five takeaways against a hapless offense that gave
them the win over Chicago, while their own offense was basically
invisible.

The Bucs, ah, now we're on happier ground. In their 27-7 win
over New England, they looked as if they were moving at a
different speed than the Patriots. I believe they're over their
midseason blahs. The division has come back to them, and--dare I
risk this prediction? O.K., I'll risk it--the Bucs will beat the
Bears.

Mustn't forget the Monday-nighter. The Broncos will square
things against the Raiders, but what I saw in the K.C. game made
me nervous. The Broncos went into a prevent and let Kansas City
come back, after they'd about won the thing with a minute to go.
They played ho-hum percentage football. I expected better from
them. Denver-Oakland is a formula pick, though. Too much offense
against not enough defense.

One more formula pick. I like the Redskins over the Giants in
Washington. It won't be easy. New York will gang up on Terry
Allen and put the game in the hands of Gus Frerotte and his
wideout corps, now minus Leslie Shepherd, who's out for the year
with a dislocated left wrist. Why do the officials drop the flag
when a guy merely breathes hard on a quarterback and call
nothing for a blatant cheap shot, like the one Cowboys defensive
back Omar Stoutmire put on Shepherd after a second-quarter pass
had fallen incomplete? Beats me.

--PAUL ZIMMERMAN

COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER Frerotte will have to come up big if the Redskins expect to beat the Giants. [Gus Frerotte]

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)