12/19/2003 12:00AM

Best plays not all on best games


LAS VEGAS - When trying to analyze teams and handicap for future games, it's nice to be able to pay attention to one game at a time - something you could have done on Saturday, with three NFL games spread throughout the day. You can concentrate on every play, including the play in the trenches instead of just following the ball.

However, for the true NFL fanatic, there's nothing like a Sunday morning here in the sports books of Las Vegas with the non-stop action of eight to 10 games going at once. Two years ago, I spent the holidays in Hawaii and went through withdrawals when I could find only one sports bar that was open at 8 a.m., and they had enough TVs to only show five of the 10 games. Paradise, my foot.

This Sunday, there are eight early games and most of them have playoff implications. But those aren't strictly the games in which you can find the best edge. In fact, three of my plays - Bears, Lions, and Steelers - are in games that certainly won't be featured in a lot of locations that don't show every game on satellite, but I'll be following them just the same.

It's not possible to top my 5-0 record from last Sunday - well, I guess I could pick six games - but here's five games that I feel give me the best chance to match it.

Ravens (-3) at Browns

The Browns played a strong game last week at Denver, but the thing that kept them in the game was the Broncos going away from the run. Considering that Baltimore's Jamal Lewis set the NFL single-game rushing record with 295 yards the last time these teams met, don't expect the Ravens to make the same mistake. And if the Browns devote more defenders in an attempt to slow down Lewis, that will only make it easier for improving quarterback Anthony Wright to find receivers running open in the secondary. Add all that to a Ravens' defense that should again be able to overpower the Browns' offense, and you have the recipe for a rout.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Redskins at Bears (-4 1/2)

This is as much of a play against the Redskins as it is a play on the Bears. If the Redskins couldn't muster a decent effort last week in a heated rivalry game vs. the Cowboys, at home no less, then what chance do they have of playing a good game this Sunday at Chicago? Tim Hasselbeck had a 0.0 quarterback rating vs. the Cowboys, and now he's facing a Bears' defense that shut down the Vikings' vaunted passing attack last week. The Bears' offense, with Rex Grossman getting his second start, might not do much either, but it won't have to.

PLAY: Bears for 1 unit.

Lions (+10) at Panthers

This line really surprised me, but I guess oddsmakers figured they had to set it high enough to convince some people to back the Lions. I'll gladly take the points. I mentioned this last week when I took the Cardinals +6 1/2 vs. the Panthers, but it bears repeating: The Panthers have not won by more than six points since beating the Michael Vick-less Falcons 23-3 in the fourth game of the season. They grind out wins and are not explosive enough to be counted on to blow out anybody - even the Lions. In addition, Carolina running back Stephen Davis is doubtful, and with the Panthers having wrapped up the NFC South and with no shot at a first-round bye (meaning they could win their final two games, or lose them, and they'll still be either the No. 3 or 4 seed with a home game in the wild-card round and a road game in the divisional playoffs), you can be certain they won't be taking any unnecessary risks with any of their starters.

PLAY: Lions for 1 unit.

Chargers at Steelers (-5 1/2)

With the exception of last week's 6-0 loss to the Jets in the snow and wind, when they repeatedly stubbed their toes, the Steelers have been playing better of late. In their previous two home games, they nearly beat Cincinnati three weeks ago and then routed the Raiders two weeks ago. Tommy Maddox has regressed from his Cinderella season of a year ago, but he should have success against the Chargers' 29th-ranked pass defense. With the Chargers suffering more injuries on their offensive line, running back LaDainian Tomlinson has been more of a threat as a receiver. But the Steelers have openly talked about the need to contain him - and their speedy linebackers should be shadowing him everywhere. If that option is taken away, expect Drew Brees to struggle.

PLAY: Steelers for 1 unit.

49ers (+7 1/2) at Eagles

The Eagles have won and covered nine games in a row, but we're catching a nice number here with the 49ers. San Fran was knocked out of playoff contention three weeks ago when they lost a hard-fought game to the Packers and then they came out flat the following week in a 44-6 loss to the Ravens. But then a funny thing happened. Just when you thought the 49ers might quit on the season, Jeff Garcia started playing like his old self and led them to a 50-14 rout of the Cardinals and then a great effort in a 41-38 loss at Cincinnati in the cold. They showed they don't mind playing in bad weather and should make a good showing Sunday. The Eagles' run defense has been vulnerable this season. Kevan Barlow has seemingly taking over the running duties from Garrison Hearst and he should find some holes Sunday. In addition, the Eagles will likely be without cornerback Troy Vincent, which will make life easier for Terrell Owens. The Eagles' offense is steady, but I don't see them pulling away from the 49ers in this one. This is my upset play of the day.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Last week: 5-0 for a profit of 5 units.
NFL season record: 46-31-5 for a net profit of 11.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).