Hey, doesn't anyone want to win this thing? The Giants, leaders
of the NFC East, are 1-2-1 in their last four games. But they're
hanging on at the top because the second-place Redskins blew one
at home to the Rams.

The Cowboys, poor devils that they are, had the most bitter
Dallas-haters feeling sorry for them after that Thanksgiving
debacle against Tennessee when Emmitt Smith and Deion Sanders
went down and Troy Aikman needed muscle relaxers just to get on
the field so he could throw those three interceptions. But even
at 6-7, the Cowboys are still in the race because the Giants and
the Redskins can't open up any breathing room.

How about the Eagles, just about written off a few weeks ago
when they were struggling at 4-6? Ray Rhodes decided he might as
well look to the future and see what his young quarterback,
Bobby Hoying, could do. Presto! Hoying became an instant
success, and now Philly is 6-6-1 with a serious shot at the
division title.

There are four head-to-head matchups between those four teams
over the last three weeks, and I defy you to pick a champion for
me. The Giants get a shot at Washington at home and Philly and
Dallas on the road. New York could stay on top or miss the
playoffs entirely. I think the Eagles will beat the Giants at
the Vet on Sunday, because of the unchartable element--Hoying.
How does a guy so young stay so cool? How did he have his reads
down so well in that 44-42 shootout against the Bengals, when he
drove his team 61 yards in the last minute for a game-winning
field goal?

Beats me. Maybe it goes back to his days at Ohio State, when he
had guys like Eddie George and Terry Glenn and Joey Galloway and
Rickey Dudley in the lineup and he figured everybody's supposed
to play like that. The Giants are sturdy battlers, but they just
don't have the weapons to open things up.

The Redskins travel to Arizona and the Giants, then face
Philadelphia at home. If they look ahead just a teeny bit,
they'll get dumped by the Cardinals, who hung in tough against
Pittsburgh and have a budding star, Jake Plummer. After Sunday's
loss to the Rams, coming on the heels of that nutso tie against
the Giants, the Skins seem to be falling apart. There's a strong
temptation to pick Arizona, but I have too much faith in Norv
Turner's ability to keep things together--at least for one more
week. Washington is my shaky pick.

The Cowboys have Carolina at home in the Monday-nighter,
Cincinnati on the road, then the Giants at home. You really
think Dallas is out of it? I see a Cowboys blowout against the
Panthers, who are doing all the bad things they avoided last
year, like turning the ball over. Look at it this way. Last
season Carolina put eight players in the Pro Bowl. Who are its
Pro Bowl reps this year? Well, maybe tight end Wesley Walls and
return man Michael Bates. Can you find any more?

Enough of this downbeat stuff. Let's go to a team on the
upswing. I sat in the Giants Stadium press box on Sunday and
watched Tampa Bay win a tough game against the Giants. Guys who
cover the Bucs had told me the fear was that little Warrick Dunn
was finally showing signs of wearing down from the long season.
Not this day. Most of his 120 rushing yards came inside. On one
play he was stuffed in the hole by Corey Widmer, but Dunn just
put his head down and drove the 255-pound middle linebacker five
yards downfield.

I heard that the weakest part of fullback Mike Alstott's game
was his blocking. Not this day. He was drawing a bead on people
and leveling them. With Horace Copeland out, Tampa Bay was
shorthanded at wide receiver, but I saw some fluid catches from
tight end Dave Moore, who was supposed to be a blocking

It's a funny thing. All during the game we kept hearing these
announcements: "The temperature is now 44 degrees." "It is now
45 degrees on the field," etc. So I asked the guy next to me,
"Did somebody turn on The Weather Channel?" He looked at me
like, What potato truck did this guy fall off of? Then it dawned
on me. The Bucs have never won a game when the temperature is
42[degrees] or colder. It was as if everyone was waiting for the
thermometer to fall a few more degrees, then the Bucs' limbs
would stiffen or something.

Well, there will be no such problems on Sunday when Tampa Bay
faces the Packers at home in what should be the weekend's best
matchup. Do I think the Bucs will win? Why not? They can smell
the roses.

Look for Denver to win in Pittsburgh. Yes, the Bus, Jerome
Bettis, means big trouble for a team that has been run on at
times, but Kordell Stewart's in the down phase of his
up-and-down year. A Denver loss would open up the very real
possibility of the Broncos' ending up as a wild-card team and a
roadie for two playoff games, assuming Kansas City finishes

Minnesota at San Francisco. How do you handicap this one, after
the Niners' dismal showing against the Chiefs? Will this game
hold sufficient interest for them, or are the NFC West champs
still cruising? O.K., I think that those two great motivators,
pride and embarrassment, will kick in and that San Francisco
will show enough life to put the Vikings away. But I could be
wrong. I got my degree in handicapping, not abnormal psych.


COLOR PHOTO: JOE HAMPSHIRE/AP Hoying will be too much for the Giants' defense to handle. [Bobby Hoying and opposing player in game]

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