10/10/2002 11:00PM

Better-than-their-record Rams will cover

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LAS VEGAS - After this weekend, we will be more than a third of the way through the NFL season, and the contenders are starting to separate from the pretenders.

The Raiders, Broncos, Chargers (all in the AFC West), Dolphins (who seem to always start hot and then fizzle), Colts, Jaguars, Saints, Buccaneers, and 49ers have all gotten off to fast starts. Conversely, the Rams - what would have been the odds on them starting 0-5? - Bengals, Vikings, Titans, Texans, Jets, and Falcons have stumbled out of the gate.

It's also about this time that public perception of early-season performances starts influencing the lines. When looking for line value, if everyone gets on the bandwagon, it's time to get off. And when the public starts going against a team and driving up the price, it's time to give that team a second look.

My best bet of the week is a combination of both those factors.

Raiders at Rams (+8 1/2)

I know, I know the Rams have been terrible. This game opened at 7 1/2, got bet down to 7, and has now steamed to 8 1/2 (by Friday morning). The public loves to back the Raiders, so I wouldn't be surprised to see this line climb over 9 and even to 10 by kickoff, especially when the weekend tourists arrive from California. The Raiders have been playing great, but I wouldn't lay more than a touchdown with them on the road if they were playing the Bengals or Vikings. Home dogs in the NFL are 16-10 against the spread this year, and most of those lack the talent of the Rams. The Rams are ranked No. 13 on offense and defense, which is more conducive with being a .500 team instead of winless, so they haven't fallen that far despite their record and the loss of Kurt Warner. If the Rams can avoid turnovers early - which amounts to protecting QB Jamie Martin - they can hang with the Raiders if not win outright. And if they fall behind, the offense is still potent enough to get a backdoor cover inside this inflated number.

PLAY: Rams for 3 units.

Packers at Patriots (-5)

The Patriots are coming off back-to-back losses to the Chargers and Dolphins and will welcome the return home. The Packers are coming off a Monday night win over their bitterest rival, the Bears, and have to hit the road again on a short practice week. This is not a good scheduling spot for them. In addition, the Pack defense has lost DE Joe Johnson for the season and five defensive backs are injured. Even with its preferred starters on the field, the Packers were allowing 29 points per game on the road. The Patriots' offense should be able to score at least 30 points. On the other hand, there are not many quarterbacks (if any) that I would rather have involved in a shootout than Green Bay's Brett Favre. I see the Packers putting up between 20-23 points, so that puts me solidly on the over.

PLAY: Patriots for 2 units, and over 47 1/2 for 1 unit.

Bills (-7 1/2) at Texans

This is the case of a team with a good offense and bad defense (the Bills) and a team with a decent defense and a terrible offense (the Texans). The Bills have allowed 36 points a game, but the Texans don't even have enough offense to take advantage of that. Meanwhile, the Texans might be able to slow down the Bills' explosive attack (scoring 32.6 points itself) at first, but they will wear down from being on the field so long. The Bills should extend late to win by two to three touchdowns.

PLAY: Bills for 1 unit.

Ravens at Colts (-6 1/2)

The Colts barely held on to beat the Bengals 28-21 (as 13 1/2-point favorites) last week, and coach Tony Dungy has been stressing to his players that they can't let up when they have an opponent down. With Ravens LB Ray Lewis doubtful, the defense loses a lot of its bite. The Colts should run away with this, and we have added insurance by laying less than a touchdown in case they didn't learn their lesson.

PLAY: Colts for 1 unit.

Dolphins at Broncos (-3 1/2)

This is a rare marquee matchup on Sunday night. The Dolphins are 4-1, but only 1-1 on the road. Their lone loss came in Week 4 at Kansas City as they couldn't keep up with the Chiefs in a 48-30 loss. I see this game developing the same way. The Broncos are similar to the Chiefs (strong running game/West Coast passing offense) but with a better defense. The Broncos rebounded from their embarrassing Monday night loss at Baltimore two weeks ago and whipped the previously unbeaten Chargers 26-9 last week at Invesco Field. The home field makes all the difference.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Saints at Redskins (under 46)

Besides the Packers-Patriots over, this is my only other total play of the week. This total seems inflated because of the earlier high scores put up by these teams. The Redskins put up 31 points last week against a Titans' defense that laid down and rolled over. The Saints' defense will be a much tougher test for rookie QB Patrick Ramsey, making his first NFL start. The Saints' offense will also be slowed down playing on natural grass for the first time since the season opener, and the Redskins' defense is starting to show signs that it's picking up defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis's system.

PLAY: Saints-Redskins under 46 for 1 unit.

Season record: 25-25, including 3-4 on best bets, for a net loss of 3.9 units.