With one month remaining in the regular season, the Washington area's top football teams are preparing for the playoffs. This week's games should provide an excellent look at which teams might be contenders and which might be pretenders.

There are five big games this week, including No. 7 Damascus at No. 1 Seneca Valley in a Montgomery 3A matchup for first place. The 10 teams enter with a combined record of 57-2-2.

No. 3 DeMatha (5-0-1), the defending Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion, plays at Paul VI Catholic (6-0-1) on Friday night to decide first place in the WCAC.

It has been a season of significant strides for Paul VI, which tied No. 10 Gonzaga 0-0 (the first time it had not lost to the Eagles) and registered victories over Carroll and McNamara. But the Panthers face their toughest test of the season against DeMatha, which has put together a five-game winning streak since a season-opening 14-14 tie with Dunbar.

Another team that has improved significantly is No. 20 Patuxent (6-0), which plays at Thomas Stone (6-0) in a Southern Maryland Athletic Conference matchup. The game features two of the area's top running backs, Patuxent sophomore Terry Caulley and Thomas Stone senior All-Met Marcus Whalen. While Caulley and Patuxent have put up big numbers (averaging 44.3 points per game), Patuxent has not had tough competition. Patuxent's first six opponents are a combined 8-28; its next three--Thomas Stone, Calvert (5-1) and Westlake (6-0)--are a combined 17-1.

"Who you play or not, the fact remains we're playing pretty good football," Patuxent Coach Jim Esposito said. "We've been telling the kids all along the next three-week stretch is big for us. We've got our work cut out. Whether people believe we're for real or not, I guess we'll find out."

Meanwhile, the inside track to the Maryland 3A West Region title is up for grabs Friday in Germantown when Seneca Valley puts its school-record 32-game winning streak on the line. The Screamin' Eagles are 8-1 against Damascus, their only loss coming in 1975.

"It is probably the biggest game on our schedule," said Seneca Valley Coach Terry Changuris, whose team is winning by an average of 41.2 points per game.

Also on the schedule is No. 12 Robinson (6-0) at No. 16 Centreville (5-1) in a Virginia AAA nondistrict game and Severna Park (5-1) at No. 17 North County (6-0) in an Anne Arundel County game.

Looking for Dudinski

Normally, when in need of a big play, No. 8 Park View looks to standout running back Nelson Stickley. If not him, then maybe quarterback Nick Smith, who set a school record in Friday's 42-6 victory over Warren County by throwing his 31st career touchdown pass.

Wingback Dustin Dudinski normally is not the Patriots' big playmaker--at least not until Friday. In the victory over Warren County, Dudinski caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Smith, had a 21-yard touchdown run and threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Smith on a trick play. Stickley, lined up at fullback, took the snap from center and handed off to running back Joe Larson, who then handed off to Dudinski for the pass to Smith.

"It's really a unique play," Park View Coach Mickey Thompson said.

At the Other End

After many seasons as one of the area's top teams, Anacostia no longer finds itself in that position. Now the Indians are on the other end of scores such as 54-6, 42-0, 54-2, 28-0 and 64-6, the final tally by which Anacostia lost to No. 19 H.D. Woodson on Saturday. The Southeast Washington school's only victory was a 40-0 victory over Cardozo, which has one win.

"I don't feel bad for the future, but I've got to get through this season. I can't just wait till next year," said Anacostia Coach Willie Stewart, who has only six seniors on this season's team. "It's been rough on everybody--been rough on the coach and on the kids."

Stewart said he blamed part of his team's free-fall on its perennial success. After going 10-3 in 1997, Anacostia was 3-8 as students chose to go to other District schools where they could play immediately. It has left the Indians with a young squad.

First and 10

Talk about fast starts: No. 14 Howard scored touchdowns on the first two plays from scrimmage Saturday in a 42-6 win over Hammond.

After Hammond fumbled the opening kickoff, Howard fullback Travis Irving scored on a 37-yard run. On Hammond's first play after the ensuing kickoff, cornerback Antuan Jones tipped the ball on an option pitch, picked it up after one bounce and went 47 yards for a touchdown.

"It didn't seem real," Howard Coach Vince Parnell said. "We'd run one offensive play from scrimmage and it was 15-0."

While most opponents view standout defensive back-running back Gerald Smith as the Lions' playmaker, Jones has been providing plenty of big plays. He had a punt return for a touchdown negated by a penalty on Saturday, but this season has scored touchdowns on a kickoff return and an interception return and has three rushing touchdowns.

"He finished third in the state outdoor [track] championships in the 55 meters, so we know he's got some wheels," Parnell said. "And he is an athlete." . . .

Also putting up a quick strike was Paint Branch. In a 41-6 victory over Kennedy on Friday, the Panthers got a safety, then Mike Evans returned the ensuing kick 74 yards for a touchdown. Evans also had two touchdown receptions. . . .

Matt Hostetler, nephew of former Redskins quarterback Jeff Hostetler, threw two touchdown passes to lead River Hill to a 35-0 victory over Atholton on Saturday. . . . Marshall's Erick Portillo had 12 tackles, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and blocked a punt in the Statesmen's 42-20 victory over Stuart on Friday.