How long can a good defense carry a shaky offense before things
fall apart? It depends on the team.

Last season 5-11 San Diego, with an offense that was nowhere,
led the NFL in defense. Amazing. There was a heroic quality
about the Chargers that you had to admire, but this year their
defense finally cracked. Then there was that ugly on-the-field
exchange between free safety Michael Dumas and quarterback Jim
Harbaugh a couple of weeks ago, remember?

Defense has been carrying the Giants ever since Phil Simms
retired after the 1993 season. That's just the way it is
sometimes, and players have to live with it. Except that Pro
Bowl linebacker Jessie Armstead finally had his fill of the
imbalance and made his feelings known with some harsh words two
weeks ago. The one-big-happy-family facade lasts only so long.

Now we come to Tampa Bay, which might have the toughest defense
in the league, an outfit that bailed out a struggling offense on
Sunday with a ferocious pass rush that produced five
interceptions against Seattle. So far no rumbles of discontent.
That wouldn't do right now, with the Bucs riding a four-game
winning streak and playing host to the Vikings on Monday night
with a share of the NFC Central lead on the line. Now, with
quarterback Trent Dilfer lost (broken clavicle), the Bucs must
rally around rookie Shaun King, who has taken 30 snaps in his
NFL career.

Minnesota has won five straight behind quarterback Jeff George,
averaging better than 30 points a game. He's got the long ball
working again. Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith--everyone's
putting up big numbers these days. It'll be up to the Tampa Bay
defense to stop the Vikings, because the Bucs aren't going to
outscore them.

It will be a severe test for George, facing a hysterical crowd
in Tampa Bay's biggest game of the year. The key will be whether
the Bucs can sustain a rush, and how effective their blitz
package will be. If they can come up with a batch of exotics, if
they can devise a rush to assault George with unblocked blitzers
and knock the ball loose a couple of times to set up some easy
scores, they'll be in it.

I think the Bucs will get to George a few times and that Tampa
Bay will get some mileage out of its running game. But I see the
Vikings pulling it out in the fourth quarter. Ditto the Lions
over the Redskins, who let the Eagles back into the game with a
pair of 91-yard fourth-quarter drives.

Indianapolis, slowly distancing itself from the rest of the AFC
East, visits Miami in the division's weekly Chiller Theater. Will
the extra layoff after a Thanksgiving game allow Dan Marino to
get his arm working right? I say yes. I like the Dolphins.

The Patriots are desperate. Their discipline seems to be
cracking. Wideout Terry Glenn was benched for the first quarter
of Sunday's game against the Bills because he showed up late for
Thursday's practice. The trouble was, that was the quarter in
which New England had the stiff wind at its back. The Patriots
should have waited till the second period to sit him down.
Dallas arrives in Foxboro with a 7-0 lifetime record against New
England. A hunch: Desperation prevails. Give the win to the
Patriots.

The Giants, miraculously, are still in the hunt in the NFC East,
the division no one wants to win. The Jets are going nowhere. So
naturally I favor the Jets. I just don't like the Giants'
offense against Bill Belichick's defense, which picked off
Peyton Manning twice and held him to his lowest yardage total of
the year.

The upset light is blinking. Tennessee, which wins ugly, at
Baltimore, which loses heroically. I like the Ravens to pull off
the upset they nearly got last week against the Jaguars.

Quickie picks: The Bengals, who are better than people think and
still play hard, to beat the 49ers; the Seahawks to bounce back
against the Raiders in Oakland; the Broncos, following their bye
week, to beat the Chiefs.

--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER George has had a hot hand, but he'll be tested by the Bucs' defense.

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)