Battle of the unbeatens.
That's a promo ABC-TV has never been able to use on "Monday Night Football" after the third week of the season.
Not only is this likely to be a playoff preview, it's also the game that was expected to be the AFC championship matchup last year before Denver was upset by Jacksonville in the divisional round.
It's an interesting matchup because both teams have good quarterbacks (John Elway and Drew Bledsoe), running backs (Terrell Davis and Curtis Martin) and tight ends (Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates).
But the Patriots are the team with something to prove in this game. They've never beaten Elway (he's 9-0 against them), haven't won in Denver since 1968 and were drilled, 37-3 and 34-8, by the Broncos the past two years.
"I think we match up very well against them," Patriots coach Pete Carroll said.
There are theories that the Denver defense plays well against an immobile quarterback such as Bledsoe and that the Patriots' undersized but quick defensive line doesn't match up well against Denver's offensive line.
Whatever it is, the Broncos amassed 825 total yards to New England's 547 the past two years, out-rushed the Patriots 319-98 and had a 73: 51-46: 09 edge in time of possession.
L It all means the Broncos come in feeling they have the edge.
Sharpe said: "I'll put it like this: They could have 12 of the greatest players in NFL history. If we keep No. 7 [Elway] upright, keep his jersey clean, and if we open holes for No. 30 [Davis], I like our chances against anybody."
Best of the rest
Bucs at Packers: It's not surprising that an unbeaten team is playing at Lambeau Field on the sixth weekend of the season. The surprise is that it's Tampa Bay, not Green Bay. The defending champions, riddled with injuries, have yet to recapture their Super Bowl form. Brett Favre is looking like a young %J gunslinger instead of a mature MVP, throwing an interception from his knees last week.
The Bucs are acting like the mature team, rallying to beat Arizona last week on a day when they weren't at their best. If the Bucs win this one, they'll have a three-game lead on the Packers and a fifth-place schedule that includes the Colts, Falcons, Bears, Giants and Jets. A loss in this game and the Packers will have to start thinking wild card.
Redskins at Eagles: The Eagles have won eight of the past nine meetings, but the victory margin in seven of them was between two and four points. It figures to be another close one because coach Ray Rhodes is back in a crisis mode with his team at 1-3. It might not help that quarterback Ty Detmer and running back Ricky Watters were screaming at each other on the sideline last week, but Rhodes likes that kind of fire on his team. He debated whether to pull Detmer for Rodney Peete, but decided to give Detmer one more shot.
The Redskins, who started 7-1 last year before collapsing, are 3-1 and appear to be improved because Cris Dishman has solidified their secondary.
Worth a look
Steelers at Ravens: This was quite a rivalry when it was Pittsburgh vs. Cleveland, but it lost a lot of passion when the Browns moved. Baltimore fans, who cheered the Steelers' win over the Redskins, aren't into it yet. Earnest Byner, who remembers the way it used to be, even had to remind the Ravens' newcomers Wednesday that it's a big game. And it's a pivotal one for both teams since each has two losses. Both have problems in the secondary -- although Eugene Daniel is likely to make a difference for the Ravens -- so getting heat on the quarterback will be critical.
Chiefs at Dolphins: The Dolphins, 7-1 after bye weeks, have beaten the Chiefs four straight times including a 1994 playoff game. But Miami is a troubled team in Jimmy Johnson's second year. Johnson has yet to develop a running game -- the Dolphins are ranked last running the ball -- and Dan Marino doesn't have a good receiving corps. The Chiefs are off to a surprising 4-1 start with Elvis Grbac leading the ninth-best offense and Marcus Allen showing he's not finished. But the Chiefs' defense is ranked only 26th overall -- 27th against the pass -- so Marino may be able to throw.
Saints at Bears: The teams are a combined 1-9, but this TNT Sunday night matchup will be wonderful theater. Mike Ditka, who also returned during the preseason, comes back to Soldier Field for the first time in a regular-season game to face embattled Bears coach Dave Wannstedt. Ditka and the Chicago fans will remember the way things were, and the heat will increase on Wannstedt if he loses and falls to 0-6.
Lions at Bills: How can you figure a Detroit team that loses to New Orleans and then beats Green Bay? Bobby Ross was supposed to bring stability, but they're still the same up-and-down team they were in the days of Wayne Fontes. Like the Dolphins, the Bills are 7-1 after bye weeks and coach Marv Levy, who posted his 150th win with a remarkable comeback effort against the Colts two weeks ago, is still one of the best. Levy is rebuilding, but he's keeping the Bills competitive while he's doing it.
Vikings at Cardinals: Eyebrows were raised when the Vikings gave Brad Johnson a big contract at the end of last year to make him their quarterback of the future, but he's the second-highest-rated quarterback in the league and has the team off to a 3-2 start. By contrast, Arizona is only 1-3, but the Cardinals are better than their record indicates, with a sixth-ranked defense that features Eric Swann, Simeon Rice and Aeneas Williams. The Cardinals' problem is that they keep losing close games.
Chargers at Raiders: This game matches two 2-3 teams that won last week and are trying to overcome 1-3 starts and get to .500. Coach Kevin Gilbride showed how his offense is supposed to work last week against the Ravens, and the inconsistent Raiders crushed St. Louis. Former Ravens safety Eric Turner was finally a force for Oakland last week with his first two interceptions.
Filling out the schedule
Jets at Colts: The Jets haven't been a favorite on the road since 1994, when they were favored at Indianapolis and lost. That started a string of five straight Colts victories over the Jets. The Colts have beat the Jets 32 times -- more than any other franchise. The winless Colts are trying to avoid falling into a tailspin, and Bill Parcells is trying to get his team off to a 4-2 start.
Cowboys at Giants: Dallas has routed the Giants in the first meeting between the teams for four straight years, 31-9, 38-10, 35-0 and 27-0. The Giants have won the rematch twice. This year, the Cowboys aren't crushing teams and have finally admitted they need to spell Emmitt Smith. The Cowboys figure to win. The question is by how much.
Oilers at Seahawks: The Oilers are finding out that moving a franchise isn't easy, especially when you lose two of your top defensive players -- Cris Dishman and Micheal Barrow. They were better as a lame duck in Houston. The Seahawks can overcome a bad start to reach .500.
Bengals at Jaguars: When the Bengals finished 7-2 last year under new coach Bruce Coslet, they thought they were a different team. But they've looked like a Dave Shula team again in their 1-3 start. Jacksonville, which lost its first game in Washington last week, needs to get its running game untracked to complement Mark Brunell's passing.
Vito Stellino's power rankings
1. Denver: No. 1 faces No. 2 in battle of unbeatens.
2. New England: See above.
3. Tampa Bay: Tony Dungy is headed for Coach of the Year honors.
4. Green Bay: What's wrong with the Packers?
5. Dallas: Emmitt Smith is going to be rested at times.
6. San Francisco: 49ers now have running game.
7. Pittsburgh: "Slash" is becoming a quarterback.
8. Washington: Cris Dishman makes a key difference.
9. Jacksonville: Jaguars need a running game
10. Kansas City: Marcus Allen isn't done yet.
11. Philadelphia: Ty Detmer gets one more shot.
12. Minnesota: Brad Johnson is developing quickly.
13. Miami: Jimmy Johnson is getting impatient with Dan Marino.
14. Ravens: Looked like the same old Ravens last week.
15. Buffalo: Marv Levy has won 150 games.
16. Carolina: Can Steve Beuerlein revive the Panthers?
17. Arizona: Cardinals keep losing the close ones.
18. Oakland: Raiders are having trouble drawing fans.
19. Cincinnati: They no longer can blame Dave Shula.
20. Detroit: Which Lions team will show up this week?
21. N.Y. Jets: Jets are road favorites at Indianapolis.
22. St. Louis: Two weeks to prepare for the 49ers.
23. Seattle: Should reach .500 vs. the Oilers.
24. Tennessee: Move took its toll.
L 25. San Diego: Ravens' D jump-started the Chargers' offense.
26. New Orleans: Homecoming for Iron Mike Ditka.
27. N.Y. Giants: Injuries are piling up for the Giants.
28. Indianapolis: Eugene Daniel is latest ex-Colt to help the Ravens.
29. Chicago: Fans will welcome back Ditka.
30. Atlanta: Still leading the Peyton Manning derby.
Pub Date: 10/03/97