01/19/2004 1:00AM

Books decide: Pats -7 seems right


Setting the line on the Super Bowl is based as much on art as science. Oddsmakers not only have to weigh the relative strengths of the two teams, but they also have to handicap the betting public and how the public will likely place its wagers.

When the smoke cleared Sunday, after the Patriots beat the Colts for the AFC title and the Panthers were well on their way to upsetting the Eagles, the biggest oddsmaking firm in the country, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, made the Patriots a 7-point favorite for the Super Bowl, to be played Feb. 1 in Houston.

Senior oddsmaker Tony Sinisi said the LVSC staff was adjusting the line all day Sunday as the games played out.

"With this matchup, we started the day thinking it would be around 6," Sinisi said. "It went up throughout the day. Not to take anything away from Carolina, but New England has continually looked like the best team in football. We debated between making it 6 1/2 or 7, but if you're going to err, you're going to want to err on the side of the favorite in a Super Bowl."

MGM Mirage was among the Las Vegas sports books that went with the 7-point spread.

"We had the four possible matchups up a week ago and had the Patriots -7 over the Panthers, and it got bet down to 6 1/2," said Robert Walker, director of race and sports for the MGM Mirage books. "After watching the games Sunday, we decided to put it back at 7.

"Seven, in general, is what the public likes to see, and although it is probably the right number, it potentially could take a lot of money to move it to either 6 1/2 or 7 1/2. We also believe that 80 percent of the money will come in on the last few days, but ultimately the late money will be bet on the Patriots."

Walker said the early money has been on the Panthers. The same was true at the Stardust and Caesars Palace, two other books that opened at 7. Caesars lowered the line to 6 1/2 on Sunday night, but the Mirage and Stardust held the line.

Other books in town, including the local joints run by Coast Casinos and Station Casinos, opened the game at 6 1/2. Coast, like last year, is offering 5-percent juice, instead of the standard 10 percent, on all straight bets on the side and total.

LVSC sent out an opening total of 38 1/2 points, with some books going with that number and most others shading it to 38. That is the lowest Super Bowl total since the 33 on the Ravens-Giants game three years ago, and only the second total under 40 since the Bears-Patriots games in 1985.

Conference title game wrap-ups

Here's a quick look at this past Sunday's games, with the point spread in mind:

Colts at Patriots: The Patriots opened as a 4-point favorite a week ago Sunday and were promptly bet down to 3 1/2, with many Las Vegas sports books dropping the line to 3 after the deluge of early money on the Colts. The line fluctuated throughout the week between 3 and 3 1/2. The Patriots jumped out to a 7-0 lead and covered the spread the entire game, leading 15-0 at halftime and winning 24-14. But that doesn't mean those bettors didn't have to sweat, as the Colts were within a touchdown, at 21-14, and had the ball. They also could have still covered with a late TD to get a push, which would have caused the books to get sided. The total opened at 41 and was bet up to 44 at some books. A late Colts TD would have also sent the game over for some bettors, but it wasn't meant to be.

Panthers at Eagles: The Eagles opened as a 5 1/ 2-point favorite and that line also got bet down. By the weekend, it was a pretty solid 4 everywhere. The total was 36 1/2, after getting bet down from 38. Like the Patriots, the Panthers scored a touchdown first and were in control throughout, eventually winning, 14-3. The Eagles had their chances to get back in the game, especially when they trailed only 7-3 at the start of the second half and drove inside the Carolina 20, only to have Ricky Manning grab the second of his three interceptions off Donovan McNabb. The under was never in doubt.

Bankroll sweeps title games

Both results worked for my bankroll plays, as I had the Patriots and the Panthers. The 2-0 record improved my playoff record to 6-4, for a net profit of 1.6 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). My NFL season record is 61-39 (61 percent), with five pushes, for a net profit of 18.1 units.

Mirage closes phone accounts

As of Wednesday, the Mirage sports book is closing its phone betting accounts. Walker said it was a business decision because they weren't cost-effective anymore.

Nowadays, Nevada regulations limit phone bettors to a total of $2,200 in wagers per day, and bettors must go through a cumbersome task of calling in, punching in their account info, waiting for a return call to a beeper with another code, then entering that code before being able to make their bets.

Mirage account holders should have received a letter last weekend with instructions on turning in their beeper and withdrawing funds.

Four casino companies - Boyd Gaming, Station Casinos, Coast Casinos, and Leroy's - still have sports phone wagering in Las Vegas, with the Stations also offering computer wagering through a closed-linked system. Coast Casinos is the only casino currently with race phone wagering.

Contest coming to town

Wednesday begins the two-day Coast to Coast Shootout at the Suncoast and Barbary Coast. The entry fee is $300, with players making 16 real-money $50 bets Wednesday and Thursday. Wagers can be win, place, show, quinella, exacta, trifecta, or superfecta, as long as they add up to $50. No multi-race wagers are allowed. Players keep the money from their winning tickets, while also competing for the prize money that will include all entry fees plus an additional $10,000 from the Gold Coast in seed money.

On Friday and Saturday, the spotlight moves to the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas. There is no entry fee since the field is made up of 260 qualifiers (plus defending champion Steve Wolfson Jr.) from across the country who earned their way into the finals by competing in qualifying tournaments. Contestants make 15 mythical $2 win and place wagers each day, earning points based on their selections' mutuel payoffs.