Some people consider this the Holiday Season. For me it's the
Formula Season. My eyes have gone blurry from trying to read the
many columns of tightly packed agate type. Team A can clinch a
playoff spot or a division title with a win or a tie, provided
Team B loses or ties while Team C just ties. Ties? Who ties these
days? But deadlocks are always in there, like bugs in a computer,
helping to make the whole thing incomprehensible except to those
willing to devote most of their waking hours to the project.

I won't numb you with a recitation of all the possibilities. I'll
try to mention just a few, in their broadest terms, but even then
it's easy to fall into the formula trap once you start
theorizing. Let's just say the NFL has three classes of citizens
at this stage of the season: the already clinched, the could
clinch and the can't clinch. There is no handicapping formula
based on urgency. Except in the last game, when a team has
clinched everything it can and gives its jayvees a chance to win
their varsity letters, the end of the season can be weird and
unpredictable. Can't-clinch teams, loose and worry-free because
they have nothing to play for, often beat teams with everything
to lose.

The most interesting games involve teams playing under the same
pressures. Which brings us to Miami-New England on Saturday. In
September, if someone had told you that the Patriots, after 14
games, would rank in the bottom half of the league in all six
offensive and defensive yardage categories, and that Drew Bledsoe
would not be playing, what chance would you have given them
against the division-leading Dolphins? Here are the Patriots,
though, poised to move into first place with a win in Foxboro.

How are they doing it? The Cinderella story of Tom Brady has been
well documented, but aside from this magical quarterback, can you
find anybody on this team with a shot at the Pro Bowl? O.K.,
maybe wideout Troy Brown, if the voters are hip enough to reward
a relative unknown who lays it all on the line every week (are
you listening, Randy Moss?), but offensive line? Defensive line?
Try to find another one.

The Patriots are getting superior coaching and exceptional
effort, and they have that giddy feeling, as if they're riding a
carousel and never want to get off. Now they face a Miami team
coming off a blah effort against the 49ers, which makes Miami
extra dangerous. A year ago, almost to the day, the AFC
East-champion Dolphins beat New England on a 49-yard Olindo Mare
field goal into the Foxboro wind with nine seconds to go. In that
game a referee's ruling that there were still three seconds left
brought the players, some wrapped in towels, out of the showers
35 minutes after the final whistle for one final play, a Hail
Mary pass that fell incomplete.

I see another bizarre game, one filled with turnovers. I see the
Patriots somehow finding a way to squeak out a victory, as they
have done for the past two months.

I'll stick to games involving playoff clinchers or wannabe
clinchers. San Francisco keeps its running game going and muscles
out a victory over Philadelphia on the West Coast. Skip Hicks has
revived the Titans' ground attack, which seems to be the best way
to beat the Raiders, but not in Oakland. Washington, still
another strong running team, seems to be made for the Bears, who
have allowed only two teams to crease them for more than 100
yards on the ground in their last 10 games. Chicago gets the win.

The Packers, one game behind the Bears, whom they've beaten
twice, hold the tiebreaker edge in the NFC Central. Green Bay
will stay in the hunt by knocking off Cleveland. New Orleans and
Tampa Bay, which might be without Warren Sapp (strained left
shoulder) are battling for a lower wild-card seed. Tough game to
handicap. Exhaustion might decide it, and I get the feeling that
the Bucs are worn out. I'll cast a shaky vote for the Saints. I
can't see Seattle beating the Giants on the ground, and I can't
see Matt Hasselbeck having much success in the December wind at
Giants Stadium. The Giants will take it with their defense.
Finally the Jets, who have piled up 36 takeaways this season,
will pick up a few more in an upset win in Indianapolis.

--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Tedy Bruschi (54) and the Patriots stack up well against the Dolphins.
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)