12/27/2002 12:00AM

Be aware of the playoff implications


LAS VEGAS - The final weekend of the NFL season is always very chaotic at the sports books of Nevada. There's almost as much action behind the counters as there is on the television screens.

Usually, bookmakers take a bunch of afternoon games off the betting boards once the 10 a.m. (PST) games start. They don't want to get caught napping and give someone an edge if a team playing later either clinches a playoff spot or is eliminated due to results of earlier games.

But this year that won't happen much. Most teams that are playing later in the day will still have to win, while others won't even know who they're cheering for.

One game that will come off the board is the Buccaneers-Bears game on Sunday night. If the Packers beat the Jets, then the Bucs can't earn a first-round bye and might rest more players since they will then be playing next weekend.

Buccaneers at Bears (+6 1/2)

Aside from the factors stated above, there are other reasons to side with the underdog in this game. The Bears have continued to play hard in their spoiler role (consider their upset win over the Jets two weeks ago), and this is their last game in their temporary home in Champaign, Ill., where they have covered three of their last four games. The Bucs are limping toward the playoffs and will start Rob Johnson, who could be a sitting duck for the Bears' pass rush. The final reason, of course, is that the Bucs are 0-20 when the game-time temperature is below 40 degrees. You don't even try to buck that kind of trend, and we don't even have to win the game to win the bet.

PLAY: Bears for 2 units.

Packers (+1) at Jets

This game opened with the Packers as a 1-point favorite and the Jets have been bet to favoritism. But before you think that's a positive sign, here's a trend you won't read anywhere else: In games in which the public determined the favorite this season (either by changing the favorite, betting a game that opened with a favorite down to pick-em, or betting a pick-em game and making one team a favorite), the bettors have a record of 4-8. It usually turns out that the oddsmakers were right. Besides, the Packers need this game every bit as much as the Jets. The Pack is 3-1 against the spread in outdoor road games, and the wintry conditions won't faze Brett Favre & Co.

PLAY: Packers for 2 units.

Falcons at Browns (+2 1/2)

This is partly a combination play. In Saturday's edition, I picked the Eagles to beat the Giants. If that happens, the Falcons will have clinched a wild-card spot and might not be as motivated against a Browns team that is still fighting for its playoff life. Even if the Giants win and the Falcons give an all-out effort, the Falcons often let teams stick around (like they did last week vs. the Lions before blowing them out in the fourth quarter), and the Browns have shown they can pull out the close games.

PLAY: Browns for 1 unit.

Cowboys at Redskins (-6 1/2)

When Steve Spurrier was hired as Redskins coach, he promised to beat the Cowboys. He should succeed, though the game won't get the media attention he was hoping for. The Cowboys have quit the past two weeks and are obviously distracted by the circus atmosphere surrounding Jerry Jones's coy courtship of Bill Parcells.

PLAY: Redskins for 1 unit.

Season record: 60-67-4 for net loss of 11.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1) heading into Saturday's games.

College bowl games

After stepping aside to give the NFL the spotlight on Sunday, the bowl season resumes with two games on Monday and six games on Tuesday.

Last year, my bankroll plays started 6-0 in the early bowl games, but then I stumbled to the finish line, losing six of my last eight and finishing 11-10 overall, breaking exactly even with the vig.

This year, I'm off to a decent start again (depending on how my plays Friday and Saturday fared), but I'm going to be more selective as we approach the bigger games. The oddsmakers have a better grasp on these games and the lines are much tougher to beat. Hopefully, less is more.

Monday: Seattle Bowl - Oregon (-7) vs. Wake Forest

This will pretty much be a home game for Oregon, with the stadium located only 300 miles from its campus and with about 15,000 fans reported to be making the trip for the game. In addition, they get running back Onterrio Smith back in the line-up. Wake Forest was barely bowl-eligible at 6-6 and 3-5 in the ACC. The Pac-10 should get back on the winning track here.

PLAY: Oregon for 1 unit.

Tuesday: Humanitarian Bowl - Iowa State (+11 1/2) vs. Boise State

Boise State opened as an 8 1/2-point favorite and has been steamed all the way to 11 1/ 2. That's just too many points to give a quality Big 12 team like Iowa State. Granted, the Cyclones went 1-5 both straight up and against the spread down the stretch, but you still can't dismiss wins over Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas Tech. Boise State has the home field, but they're stepping up against better competition here. It won't shock me if Iowa State pulls the outright upset, but they should at least stay within single digits.

PLAY: Iowa State for 1 unit.

Tuesday: Peach Bowl - Tennessee (+1) vs. Maryland

This features the same situation I cited in the Packers-Jets NFL game. Tennessee opened as a 2 1/2-point favorite and Maryland has been bet all the way to -1. The Tennessee offense performed below expectations, but now quarterback Casey Clausen will begin his campaign for next year's Heisman Trophy. The defense was solid and kept the Volunteers in most games, and ended the season with two shutouts. They'll have their hands full with Maryland quarterback Chris Downs and running back Bruce Perry, but I like Clausen's experience in a shootout.

PLAY: Tennessee for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 3-3 for net profit of 0.7 units (based on laying 1.1 to win 1) through Thursday's games (a loss on Toledo and a win on Pittsburgh); season record: 31-33 for a net loss of 4.5 units.