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Bears, Packers meet for control of NFC Central

This is the way football was meant to be played. When the Chicago Bears travel to Green Bay this weekend to take on the Packers, the league’s oldest (and perhaps fiercest) rivalry will be renewed for the second time this season and bragging rights will take a back seat in this key NFC Central contest. The winner of this game will have a leg up in the division race as the two teams head for the finish line, but even the loser should be in good position to qualify for the playoffs.

Before we take a look at that game, and a number of other key NFL tilts, let’s review last week’s record.I escaped the Thanksgiving weekend without looking like a turkey as I went 7-3 to bring the season mark to 91-39 (70 percent).

With the collegians preparing for bowl games, this column will be devoted to NFL games for the next few weeks. So let’s see what the schedule has to offer.

Chicago at Green Bay: The Packers won the first meeting between these two, 20-12 on Nov. 11 and Brett Favre and Co. would like nothing more than to sweep their bitter rivals. Green Bay is coming off a Monday night road game at Jacksonville, but playing at home should help to get them out of any doldrums they may encounter having from the warm climate of Florida to chilly Green Bay. The Bears have proven they can win away from the Windy City, as evidenced by their 13-3 win at Minnesota two weeks ago in a game where their defense controlled the Viking vaunted offense from start to finish. Look for the Packers to use Ahman Green to wear down the Bears defense, which should allow Favre to use his play action passing game for one or two big scores. The Bears, on the other hand, will pressure Favre on defense and hope that rookie running back Anthony Thomas is ready to go to help them control the clock and keep Favre off the field. My pick, Green Bay 23, Chicago 16

Cleveland at New England: When the season began, not too many people, even those in Cleveland and Boston, thought these two teams would be fighting for a playoff spot this late in the season but that’s exactly what’s at stake when these two surprise teams meet in Foxboro on Sunday. Cleveland head coach Butch Davis has done a remarkable job of turning the Browns into winners almost overnight and should be strongly considered for Coach of the Year honors. NE’s Bill Billichick has done a nice job himself. Turning the quarterbacking job over to Tom Brady took courage, especially with Drew Bledsoe now healthy. Brady made his head coach’s decision look brilliant two weeks ago with a four touchdown performance against New Orleans. Look for Brady to go after the Cleveland secondary in this one as the Pats remain in contention for the AFC East title. My pick, New England 24, Cleveland 18

NY Giants at Dallas: Well, I guess Jim Fassell is one-for-one in the prediction business. Fassell was right a year ago when he said his team would win its last five games, which it did. Too bad history isn’t repeating itself this time around. Three weeks ago Fassell said his team would win its last six games. Sorry Jim, but Oakland put a stop to that with a 28-10 thumping two weeks ago. The Giants’ vaunted defense looked average at best in that game as the Raiders threw over and around their overrated secondary. But NY should get healthy this Sunday when they take on a Dallas team that is short on talent. The Cowboys have had virtually no running game this year and the Giants do play the run well, so don’t expect that to change this week. My pick, NY Giants 21, Dallas 10

Tennessee at Minnesota: They should call this one the “Disappointment Bowl.” Both teams entered the season with dreams of making a run for the Super Bowl, but both teams have played suffered through less than inspiring seasons. Injuries have taken a toll on both teams, especially Tennessee which has been decimated in the secondary. A depleted secondary is the last thing the Titans need when they take on Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Daunte Cullpepper this Sunday. This should be the week when the Minnesota passing game finally puts up big numbers and likewise for Eddie George and the Titans’ running game. George, one of the league’s best backs, has been held in check all year, but look for him to bust out against a porous Viking defense. Both of these teams are out of the playoff hunt, so look for a high scoring affair in this one. My pick, Minnesota 38, Tennessee 34

NY Jets at Pittsburgh: While the points will be aplenty between the Vikes and Titans, the opposite will be the case when the defensive minded Jets and Steelers hook up in Pittsburgh. Both teams will play it close to the vest as they protect their division leads, and no team plays conservative football better than the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s defense is back to its old self of reeking havoc on opposing offenses and tailback Jerome Bettis is bowling over defenses on offense. The Jets are also getting it done with aggressive defensive play and a strong running game led by Curtis Martin. This one should go down to the wire, with the Pittsburgh defense making the key play late to pull out the win. My pick, Pittsburgh 19, NY Jets 13

Seattle at Denver: The Broncos have gotten back on track after a mid-season slide, but they need to be wary of a Seattle team that could throw a wrench into Denver’s playoff hopes. Denver’s running game is still a mess, but if Terrell Davis returns from his most recent injury to at least half of his former self, that could be enough to ignite Denver for a late season run. Quarterback Brian Griese is beginning to incorporate his tight ends into the passing game, which is taking pressure off wide receiver Rod Smith who has put together an outstanding season. On defense, Denver must slow down Seattle’s Shaun Alexander, who is emerging as one of the top young backs in the NFL. Denver knows it cannot afford many more slip up, what with Oakland owning a three-game lead (as of this writing) in the division. My pick, Denver 31, Seattle 23

Kansas City at Oakland: In Week 1, the Raiders showed their grit by overcoming an 11 -point deficit in the third quarter en route to an overtime victory over the Chiefs. Oakland is arguably playing as well as any team in the NFL, even the Rams, at this point of the season, so don’t expect a let up this weekend against their arch rivals. Look for quarterback Rich Gannon to dissect the KC defense with his accurate tosses to Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, which will open up things for Oakland’s three-headed running game of Charlie Garner, Tyrone Wheatley and Zach Crockett. The Chiefs are improving under first-year head coach Dick Vermeil, but the Raiders smell home field advantage throughout the playoffs and they aren’t about to lose to a team they should easily beat. My pick, Oakland 30, Kansas City 17

Indianapolis at Miami: The Colts are another team that has disappointed its fans this year, but when you lose one of the top backs in the league (Edgrin James) it does tend to make things more difficult on your offense. Still, quarterback Peyton Manning has had a penchant for turnovers this year and that’s not a good sign what with the ball hawking Dolphins on tap this Monday night. In recent years, the Colts have had success playing in Miami, but this is a different Miami team. The Dolphins are proving they can score with anybody and their defense has played solid this year. This should be a good one for Monday night because the Colts have nothing to lose, so look for them to mix in a few gadget plays in this one. Look for Miami to win this one late. My pick, Miami 27, Indianapolis 24