12/12/2003 1:00AM

Bears' rookie quarterback will suffice


LAS VEGAS - It was strange not seeing any college football games scheduled this weekend. In fact, there were no football games of any kind slated for Saturday. Maybe I will actually get some shopping done.

But after that, all the shopping I'm doing will be for the best available lines. My patience will be rewarded with 15 NFL games on Sunday, a prime matchup between the Eagles and Dolphins on Monday night, and the first game of the bowl season on Tuesday. As a further reward for suffering through football withdrawal, there will be three NFL games on each of the next two Saturdays, and then playoff games the two Saturdays after that.

Here are my top plays Sunday through Tuesday:

Vikings at Bears (+3)

This line was around 1 1/2 until midweek, when it was announced that rookie Rex Grossman will start at quarterback for the Bears. The line was raised to 3, but I think that's an overadjustment. Grossman played in a pro-style offense at Florida and could step in and have success right away against the Vikings' secondary. The Bears have been playing much better the second half of the season and were actually back in the playoff hunt until their 34-21 loss at Green Bay last week. In that game, the Bears jumped out to a 14-0 lead and had a chance to retake the lead in the fourth quarter, trailing 19-14, when Kordell Stewart had a pass picked off and returned 90 yards by Mike McKenzie for a TD. Grossman can't do any worse. The key will be shutting down the Vikings' offense, and the forecasted blustery conditions should help the Bears play the role of spoiler.

PLAY: Bears for 1 unit.

Jaguars at Patriots (-7)

The Jaguars have covered five straight games, and they are sure to be a popular underdog play from bettors who have cashed tickets on them in recent weeks and see them getting 7 points, but this is really not a good spot for them. The Patriots are playing even better right now and are in position to take the home-field advantage in the AFC away from the Chiefs. The Jags are coming to the cold weather from Florida, just like Miami did last week when the Dolphins suffered a 12-0 loss. Byron Leftwich is playing well for Jacksonville, but he will be seeing some different looks from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has a history of making far more experienced quarterbacks look bad.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Cowboys (-1) at Redskins

The Cowboys have fallen off their high horse after their great start and need a win to solidify their position as a wild-card team after pretty much giving up the NFC East to the Eagles. Backup quarterback Tim Hasselbeck led the Redskins to a win last week in his first NFL start, but that was against the faltering Giants, and he will have a much harder task against the Cowboys' defense. In addition, he won't have injured running backs Trung Canidate and Ladell Betts. Expect Dallas coach Bill Parcells to circle the wagons, so to speak, and round up an important win.

PLAY: Cowboys for 1 unit.

Bills (+6) at Titans

The Titans, who as recently as two weeks ago were regarded by many as the top team in the league, have lost two straight games, to the Jets and Colts. While they should get the win at home here, this should be a defensive battle. The Bills are 12-1 with the under this year, with their defense playing superbly and the offense struggling, so I'm expecting a score in the style of 17-13, 13-10, or thereabouts. Whether Tennessee QB Steve McNair plays will once again be a game-time decision, so this line might be increased to 7 by kickoff.

PLAY: Bills for 1 unit.

Panthers at Cardinals (+6 1/2)

Last week, I went with the Cardinals +9 1/2 at San Francisco, writing "The Cardinals are one of those teams that, just when you think there can't be a worse team in the league, they step up and pull an upset. They did it earlier this year against the Packers and also against the 49ers, and they can do it again here." Well, the Cards got blown out, 50-14. Oops! I'm wheeling right back with them, however, because the above words are even more fitting here with the Cardinals returning home, where they upset the Packers and 49ers. The Panthers have lost three straight games and have not won by more than six points since beating the Michael Vick-less Falcons 23-3 in the fourth game of the season. The Panthers' M.O. is to grind out wins, and the Cardinals can stick with that kind of team.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Last week's NFL bankroll record: 3-3 for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 41-31-5 for a net profit of 6.9 units.

New Orleans Bowl (Tuesday)

North Texas (+4 1/2) vs. Memphis

Both teams have strong ground games - though Memphis star running back DeAngelo Williams is not expected to play - and solid defenses. That combination tends to lead to a low-scoring game in which points will be at a premium, so my first look has to be to the underdog and the under (total is 49). This is almost like another home game for North Texas, which is playing in this bowl at the Superdome for the third straight year as champions of the Sun Belt Conference, and it scored a 24-19 win over Conference USA's Cincinnati last year. Meanwhile, Memphis is in its first bowl in 32 years and is a prime candidate for "just glad to be here" syndrome, which can be especially dangerous if these kids are getting their first glimpse of Bourbon Street. The North Texas players will approach this as more of a business trip, and they will get the job done.

PLAY: North Texas for 1 unit.

Last week's college bankroll record: 0-1 for a loss of 1.1 units.

Season record: 32-31 for a net loss of 2.1 units.