09/06/2002 12:00AM

49ers right bet only for early birds


LAS VEGAS - Thursday night wasn't a "total" loss for bettors as the NFL season kicked off. The majority of over/under tickets on the 49ers-Giants game were on the under, as bettors pounded it down from the opening total of 42 to 38 1/2 by game time at most Las Vegas sports books.

Those bettors were cashing tickets when the 49ers beat the Giants 16-13 in a mistake-filled but exciting season opener that was decided by a San Francisco field goal with :06 to play.

But it was a different story with the point spread, which attracts a lot more money than the total. The majority of bettors got a push with the final landing on the 3-point spread that was on the betting boards most of the week, while those who jumped on the bandwagon after the line moved to -3 1/2 and -4 (and even -4 1/2 at some books) got "steam" rolled.

When the game was posted 49ers -2 1/2 on Aug. 31 at the Stardust, professional bettors quickly bet it up to -3. Every other sports book in Vegas opened at -3. As the week went by, money came in steadily on the 49ers. It takes a lot to get sports books to move off the key number of 3. They eventually all moved it to 3 1/2, but the bettors didn't stop there.

Odds for Sunday's games have been fluctuating as well, so bettors need to shop around so that they don't catch a bad number and lose a game they should have pushed or push a game they should have won.

Chiefs (+3) at Browns (under 37)

My rambling above applies in this first game. The line has been bouncing back and forth between 2 1/2 and 3. I got the Chiefs at +3 earlier this week and some books still had 3 as of noon Friday, though it looks like most will go to 2 1/2 with Browns QB Tim Couch listed as questionable and rookie RB William Green also limping. Regardless of how the line moves, the Chiefs, whom I see as an up-and-coming team, should have been favored from the start. They possess a balanced attack, with QB Trent Green hopefully learning from his first full season as a starter, and RB Priest Holmes. All-Pro TE Tony Gonzalez is also back in the fold after a holdout. They won't run roughshod over a solid Browns defense, but they should be able to score enough to win handily, somewhere in the 20-10 range. Coupled with the fact the Browns offense is in disarray, I also like the game to finish comfortably under the total of 37. Play: Chiefs for 2 units and under 37 for 1 unit.

Chargers at Bengals (-2)

The Bengals' defense ranked ninth in the league last season, and really came on late in the season. Drew Brees, getting his first pro start for San Diego, will have to go through growing pains. The Bengals should control the game and the clock with RB Corey Dillon carrying the load. I see the Bengals winning in the 20-13 range. Play: Bengals for 1 unit, and under 37 1/2 for 1 unit.

Ravens (-2) at Panthers (under 34)

I would be playing against both these team this week if they weren't playing each other. The Panthers have switched to Rodney Peete at QB, which seems like a step back. The Ravens aren't in much better shape with Chris Redman at the controls (he's thrown three NFL regular-season passes in two seasons), as he failed to lead a touchdown drive during the preseason. Matt Stover, who had his NFL record of 38 consecutive games with a field goal ended late last season, might need only one field goal Sunday in a game that could end 3-0. Or maybe 6-3 or 9-6, any of which gets me the point-spread cover and the under. Play: Ravens for 1 unit, and under 34 for 1 unit.

Colts (-3 1/2) at Jaguars

The Colts should break from the gate early. With Peyton Manning throwing to Marvin Harrison and a deep receiving corps, the offense will be explosive, even if RB Edgerrin James isn't ready to go 100 percent. The Jaguars signed WR Jimmy Smith this past week, but teams will be able to double-team him more without Keenan McCardell (free agent to Tampa Bay) on the other side of the field. Don't think new Colts coach and defensive guru Tony Dungy hasn't put that in the gameplan. Play: Colts for 1 unit.

Falcons (+7 1/2) at Packers

Brett Favre is throwing to three brand-new receivers. If this game was in midseason, I would probably pass, but with the Packers not expected to be in sync, I think Falcons QB Michael Vick can keep his team in the game. His offensive line is a question mark, but he can buy his own time and make big plays. This could be week 1's biggest upset. The Lambeau Field edge might help propel the Packers to victory, but the Falcons should be in it in a game that could end 23-20 either way. Play: Falcons for 1 unit.

Thursday's result: I had over 40 in the 49ers-Giants season opener. The 49ers got a turnover in the opening minute and failed to score (missing a short field goal). They squandered other opportunities, including another missed field goal. The Giants also failed to hit paydirt and clung to a 6-3 halftime lead, though the score should have been a lot higher. The offenses picked up in the second half but we fell well short of the over as the 49ers won 16-13.

Season record: 0-1 (-1.1 units, based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).