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Cowboys and 49ers take bows at the half

It's time to say bye to the byes and check the report card on the winners and losers of the first half of the season now that all the teams have played eight games:

Best teams: Dallas, which has started a new era, and San Francisco, which has continued its old era with new faces.

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Worst team: New England. The coach is ill, the owner berates the general manager at halftime and the moving vans are warming up. Is this team taking lessons from Bob Irsay?

Best wheeler-dealer: Jimmy Johnson, who has made 46 trades while running the Cowboys, including the acquisition of Charles Haley and Thomas Everett this year.

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Best coaches: Dennis Green brought an attitude change in Minnesota and Bill Cowher brought emotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers sidelines.

Best media coach: Rich Kotite of the Philadelphia Eagles gave the writers and broadcasters the best story of the year by benching Randall Cunningham.

Best player: Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys, who proved again you can't judge a running back with a stopwatch.

Best rookie: Ricky Watters of the San Francisco 49ers if he's a rookie. He sat out last year with an injury, so there's a debate about whether he's officially a rookie, but he's the best newcomer.

Biggest losers: NFL lawyers, who lost more than $60 million in three separate lawsuits.

Worst prediction: Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said after the opening arguments in Minneapolis that the NFL would win the Freeman McNeil case only to have the jury rule Plan B a violation of the antitrust laws.

Second worst prediction: Vito Stellino's best bets.

Most disappointing teams: Detroit and Atlanta went to the playoff ball last year, but turned back into pumpkins this year.

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On the bench

When American voters elected a new president Tuesday, it was only the second-biggest story in Philadelphia. The headline on Page 1 of the Philadelphia Inquirer that day: "Kotite to bench slumping Cunningham for Sunday's game."

That'll puzzle historians researching election coverage a couple of hundred years from now. Before the week was over, CBS, NBC and ESPN were on hand to get fodder for today's pre-game shows.

Kotite also confused things by saying the move was only for one game. If Jim McMahon plays well today against the Los Angeles Raiders, it's difficult to believe Kotite would yank him.

Early in the week, Cunningham wasn't happy. "If he thinks a week off will help me, he doesn't know me as well as I thought he did."

By Wednesday, though, Cunningham was playing the diplomat's role.

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"I would have done the same thing he did. I haven't been doing good for three or four weeks," he said.

It may have dawned on Cunningham that McMahon doesn't have a history of staying healthy. He's better off taking the high road.

The poll game

The NFL has learned it's better off staying out of politics. Two years ago, it got involved in Arizona politics by spreading the word that it would yank the Super Bowl out of Phoenix if voters rejected the Martin Luther King holiday.

There was a backlash, the measure lost and Phoenix lost the 1993 game. This time, the NFL refused all comment and the measure was approved by 61 percent of the voters. Phoenix will be awarded the 1996 game at the meetings next March.

Before the judge

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Federal Judge David Doty will hold a hearing Thursday in Minneapolis to hear the arguments on the fate of the 600 players whose contracts expire Feb. 1. The players contend they should all be free agents or at least all of them with four years of experience should be free.

The NFL will unveil a new plan to replace Plan B that still has a lot of restrictions on player movement.

Doty is expected to decide whether to let the owners implement their new plan in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the court battles go on and on. A date was set for next June 1 in Los Angeles for a group of plaintiffs led by Marcus Allen of the Raiders, who was demoted to third string last week behind Eric Dickerson and Nick Bell.

"It seems to me like they keep me here just to torture me," Allen said.

Mellow Mike

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Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears will face David Shula of the Cincinnati Bengals for the first time today.

"I like David Shula. He's a bright, young articulate guy who keeps his cool. I kind of like that in coaches," he said.

Ditka has certainly had a lot of practice.

Remember Howard

Ricky Watters of the San Francisco 49ers on his first Monday night game tomorrow in the Georgia Dome:

"Howard [Cosell] needs to come out of retirement for this game. I liked the way he used to describe my boy Tony Dorsett, the sheer athleticism, the way he talked about Walter Payton made dTC me want to be Walter Payton. I'm pumped up for Monday night. This is my first Monday night game. I'm from the days of Howard Cosell. These were the days when they used to show all the highlights of the day before. I used to sit there getting chills. Now I get to play on Monday night in a new dome."

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Beating the spread

Of the 24 teams who've been double-digit underdogs this year, 17 have covered the spread and eight have won outright. The Cardinals have covered the spread four times as double-digit underdogs and beaten the Redskins and 49ers. The Redskins are double-digit favorites for the third time today in Seattle. The first two times, they lost to the Cardinals and Giants.

The coin flip

The Rams, who play host to the Cardinals today, have lost 12 straight coin flips, including the exhibition games. The odds are 8,191-to-1 against losing 13 straight.

Vito Stellino's picks

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It's time to steal a page from the political pundits.

If only we could have exit polls in football, we could know which teams won before the fans did.

The TV commentators all knew by mid-afternoon that Bill Clinton was an easy winner Tuesday, but they didn't announce it until almost 11 p.m. because they wouldn't call any state before the polls closed.

Of course, there were plenty of clues with the correspondents from Little Rock, Ark., talking about the party to come, but they kept up the pretense that it wasn't over until it was over. In elections, it's over before it's over.

If I'd had an exit poll to tell me the Giants came into RFK thinking it was 1990 again, I would have picked them. Oh, well, let's try again.

VITO'S PICK... ... ... ... ... ... THE LINE

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Redskins 23, Seahawks 3 ... ... ...Redskins by 12 1/2

Baltimore's Redskins haters will complain about this turkey of a game being on TV, but now that the city has overnight ratings, we can find out how many Baltimoreans watch it behind closed doors.

Eagles 23, Raiders 14... ... ... ..Eagles by 7

Can Jim McMahon still stay healthy for four quarters?

Cowboys 24, Lions 10 ... ... .... .Cowboys by 6 1/2

Barry Sanders vs. Emmitt Smith would be a classic if the teams were even.

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Saints 27, Patriots 3... ... ... ..Saints by 8 1/2

Did Dick MacPherson become ill watching the Patriots?

Oilers 28, Browns 7... ... .. ... .Oilers by 12

Did Scott Norwood watch the end of the Oilers-Steelers game last week and get a flashback?

Giants 21, Packers 17... ... ... ..Giants by 9

Was Ray Handley doing some consulting work for the Eagles last week on team turmoil?

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Dolphins 31, Colts 14... ... .. .. Dolphins by 6 1/2

If Don Shula loses twice to the Colts in three weeks, it's time to say the game has passed him by.

Vikings 21, Buccaneers 7... ... ... Vikings by 6

Sam Wyche said recently, "You need to win just to feel that genius dust sprinkle on you once in a while." Instead, the Bucs are just getting buried.

Bills 21, Steelers 20... ... ... .. Bills by 6 1/2

It's strange to see the Steelers coach jumping up on the sidelines.

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Broncos 27, Jets 10... ... ... ... Broncos by 5

The Jets are busy evaluating the quarterback class of 1983: They have faced Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and now John Elway in the past three games.

Chiefs 23, Chargers 20... ... ... .. Chiefs by 6

The Chargers would like to play the Colts a couple more times.

Rams 23, Cardinals 14... ... ... ... Rams by 5

That Bill Bidwill is quite a motivator. He raises the specter of a shake-up and the Cardinals upset the 49ers.

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Bears 17, Bengals 3 ... ... ... ... .Bears by 9 1/2

Mike Ditka's endorsement wasn't worth much for President Bush.

49ers 31, Falcons 7... ... ... ... ..49ers by 7

The 49ers took a bye last week even though they were supposed to be playing the Cardinals.

Best bets: Redskins, Rams, Dolphins and Broncos.

Last week's record: 4-8. Against the spread: 4-8. Best bets: 1-3.

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Season record: 72-40. Against the spread: 49-59-4. Best bets: 11-22-3.


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