10/28/2004 11:00PM

The biggest game of our lifetime!


Point spreads and politics make strange bedfellows.

It's not often that football lines are bet along party lines, but that should be the case Sunday, when Redskins host the Packers in our nation's capital.

Every time the Redskins win their final home game before a presidential election, the incumbent wins (or, in years in which the sitting president has served two terms, the reigning party wins). Conversely, every time the Redskins have lost their last home game, there has been a change in power.

This trend started in 1936, when the franchise was the Boston Redskins and beat the Chicago Cardinals, 13-10, at Fenway Park. The following Tuesday, Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected. The franchise moved to Washington the following year and in the fall of 1940 beat the Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Steelers), 37-10, to foreshadow FDR's re-election to a third term.

The trend continued for the next 15 presidential elections. Eight times the Redskins and the incumbent have won, and seven times the Redskins have lost along with the ruling party, including four years ago, when Vice President Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in a controversial election that nearly ended the streak.

What's a handicapper to do with this information? The most logical move would be to see who is ahead in the polls and bet the Redskins-Packers game accordingly. Many polls show Bush leading John Kerry by 3-4 percentage points, but that coincidentally is the statistical margin of error on these polls, so it doesn't help us much.

So, I guess the better idea is to handicap the game in the traditional manner and let the chips fall where they may come election day. Besides, even though this trend has worked 16 consecutive times with the team in Washington, and 17 overall, that doesn't mean it's anything more than coincidence. Don't be surprised, though, to see a majority of people with "Bush/Cheney" buttons pulling for the Redskins, and "Kerry/Edwards" supporters rooting for the Packers.

Packers (-2) at Redskins

Two weeks ago, I wrote how the Packers hadn't played nearly as bad as their 1-4 start would indicate, and they have reeled off dominating wins over the Lions and Cowboys. Those teams aren't powerhouses, either, but the Redskins are comparable and the Packers should continue their resurgence. The news broke Tuesday that Brett Favre's wife has breast cancer, but before you think that will distract Favre, note that he learned the news before the Lions game (and the whole world saw what happened last year vs. the Raiders in the days following the death of Favre's father). Focusing on his work has never been a problem for Favre, and, if anything, his concentration even seems to improve.

PLAY: Packers for 1 unit.

Ravens (+7 1/2) at Eagles

In my NFL picks last week, one of the few things I wrote that panned out was: "The Eagles' defense can be run on, but the problem for most teams is they get too far behind and abandon the ground attack. Running backs William Green and Lee Suggs are both healthy for the Browns and should be able to find holes." The Browns rushed for 165 yards, averaging 4.9 per rush, and nearly pulled the outright upset before losing, 34-31, in overtime. I'm sticking with that assessment this week. The Ravens, even with Jamal Lewis serving his suspension, should be able to run the ball as well with Chester Taylor and Musa Smith spelling him. The Ravens also have a stellar defense that can match the Eagles in talent and brashness.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Jaguars (+1) at Texans

This line opened in Vegas with the Jaguars as a 1-point choice, but it got bet to now having the Texans as the favorite. I think the opening line had it right, though it's obviously as close to a pick-em as you can get. I'm siding with the Jaguars because of their defense, where they obviously have the edge. The Texans have the more explosive offense, but the Jags have been coming on in recent weeks. Byron Leftwich and Co. are no longer waiting for the fourth quarter to score, and should score plenty against the Texans.

PLAY: Jaguars for 1 unit.

Patriots (-3) at Steelers

The Patriots have won 21 straight games, but each week it seems people are lining up to pick them to lose. After three straight home wins, the Patriots now have people saying that this road game against a strong Pittsburgh team is the end of the line. But I still don't see it happening. Now, I'm a Ben Roethlisberger convert, but I can't stop thinking that New England coach Bill Belichick will have a confusing scheme for the rookie quarterback. The Steelers have benefited from a pretty easy schedule, and the step up in class should prove too much.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

49ers (+2) at Bears

The 49ers have played surprisingly well this week, going 4-2 against the spread despite a 1-4 straight-up record. San Francisco is coming off its bye week and should be relatively healthy while playing a Bears team that is going downhill fast and is now starting rookie quarterback Craig Krenzel. The 49ers will likely stack the line in order to contain running back Thomas Jones, who is the Bears' lone threat on offense. The improving 49ers offense, with running back Kevan Barlow carrying the load and quarterback Tim Rattay getting more comfortable with his receivers, should be able to outscore Jones and the Bears. I would downgrade this play if Rattay is unable to play, and the 49ers have to turn to Ken Dorsey, but Dorsey still rates an edge over Krenzel.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-4 for a net loss of 3.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 15-19-1 for a net loss of 5.9 units.