01/07/2005 1:00AM

Back Denver with 10-point cushion


LAS VEGAS - Saturday's NFL playoff matchups with the Rams-Seahawks and Jets-Chargers were intriguing, but Sunday's matchups with the Broncos-Colts and Vikings-Packers are the games more people want to see.

That's clearly why the NFL put them on the traditional pro football day of Sunday. Sure, the Jets were put on prime time Saturday night for the New York audience, likely to draw high ratings, and, yes, the Rams are still a popular team. But when it comes to marquee value, Sunday's card has it all over Saturday's.

For one, the Colts have clearly supplanted the Rams as the greatest show on turf, and they're taking on the Broncos, who are always popular TV fare. And the Vikings-Packers matchup is much more of an established rivalry than the Rams-Seahawks.

Let's take a closer look.

Broncos (+10) at Colts

As Yogi Berra would say, "It's deja vu all over again." Late last season, the Broncos blew out a resting, playoff-bound Colts team, 31-17, then had to travel to Indianapolis for the playoffs and got rolled, 41-10. This year, the Broncos blew out a resting, playoff-bound Colts team, 33-14, and must travel again to Indianapolis to face the first-stringers. A lot of people are predicting a repeat of last year's playoff tilt, as evidenced by the 10-point spread, but I don't see that happening.

Despite a rocky season, the Broncos have been looking forward to this rematch since last January. They rebuilt their defense with this matchup in mind, adding Champ Bailey at cornerback and John Lynch at safety. The Broncos ranked fourth in the league in defense and have a chip on their shoulder, unlike last season.

There was one play in last year's playoff meeting that I'd like to bring up. The Colts were leading 7-3 when Peyton Manning hit Marvin Harrison over the middle for a moderate gain. While two defenders argued with each other, Harrison, who wasn't touched by a Bronco, got up and ran the ball into the end zone for an easy TD. A similar play won't happen this Sunday. Lynch would sooner jump on an opponent on the turf than let him get away untouched.

Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer has a reputation for making ill-advised throws, but the Colts' Peyton Manning is not above that. Bailey might get burned for a TD or two, but I can see him jumping a route and making a big play, perhaps even returning an interception for a touchdown.

The other reason to back the Broncos is I'm still not sold on the Colts defense. It's often not asked to do much, since the offense is usually capable of burying opponents or winning shootouts, and the Broncos pose some matchup problems. Basically, if a team can slow down Colts defensive end and NFL sack leader Dwight Freeney - and Plummer's scrambling helps to do that - it's pretty easy to move the ball through the air. Denver has an offensive line to stop the Colts' pass rush, giving up only 15 sacks this season, and the receivers to attack the air, with Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie. Denver's ground game is superb, too, with Reuben Droughns's power running and rookie Tatum Bell now being used as a change of pace.

This should be a highly entertaining game, and I'll be very surprised if it's a repeat of last year. I'm looking for the Broncos to pull the outright upset (odds are between 3-1 and 7-2), but even if they fall short they should be able to stay within the number.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Vikings at Packers (o/u 49 1/2)

The Packers are between a 6- and 6 1/2-point favorite in the renewal of this longstanding rivalry, and I went back and forth on whom to pick. The Packers have the home-field advantage and have lost only one playoff game at Lambeau Field, and they are 38-2 when the temperature is 34 degrees or below at kickoff. In addition, the Vikings are 1-21 in their last 22 outdoor games.

But those results are all straight-up. The problem is that there are equally compelling trends on the other side. The Packers, who have lost a little home-field swagger this season by going only 4-4, have not beaten the Vikings by more than 6 points in seven years, and they play twice a season. Take the two previous meetings this season - the Packers won both by the same score, 34-31. That pretty much tells you that these teams are evenly matched. Normally, I would take an underdog that is getting nearly a full touchdown in a matchup like this, but I can't trust the Vikings, who lost four of their last five games before backing into the playoffs.

So I'm looking at the over/under of 49 1/2. My only bankroll play on a total this season was when these two teams met on Christmas Eve. I went under 56, and it looked like a strong play after a scoreless first quarter and after the Packers used an eight-minute drive to knot the score, 7-7, midway through the second quarter. But then the fireworks began, and it easily went over.

This total is nearly a full touchdown lower, but I still think we'll see a game that bears more of a resemblance to the first quarter and a half of that previous meeting. This game will kick off in late afternoon in Green Bay, Wis., and the weather won't be nearly as balmy as the previous meeting at Lambeau Field. Even though Favre is perhaps the best bad-weather quarterback of all time, the conditions should make both teams try to establish the run.

Regardless, the Vikings have struggled outdoors. Last week, in a game they really needed to win, they scored only 18 points at Washington. In their previous outdoor game, Dec. 5 at Chicago, they managed 14 points.

If this was a regular-season game, I wouldn't see much sense in going under this number, but in the playoffs, I see these teams playing a little closer to the vest and having another close game. I just hope it's not 24-24 heading to overtime.

PLAY: Vikings-Packers under 49 1/2.

Last week: 4-1 for a net profit of 2.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 41-42-3 for a net loss of 5.2 units.