09/09/2010 1:58PM

Books see a wide-open race to Super Bowl

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The long wait is over, and I’m not talking about the kids being back in school, though many cheers were heard throughout the land. No, I’m talking about the NFL season kicking off. The preseason whet the appetite, and last weekend’s college football action brought the sports books here to life, but nothing compares to NFL football on the betting boards.

Judging by the future-book odds, this looks like it should be one of most wide-open seasons in recent memory. Usually, a team emerges as the clear-cut favorite, but entering Thursday night’s opener, the Las Vegas Hilton had the Colts, Saints, and Packers as 7-1 co-favorites to win the Super Bowl. The odds on the Saints could change based on Thursday’s game with the Vikings, since the victor could have the inside track to home-field advantage in the NFC.

Next on the futures list are the Cowboys and Ravens at 8-1, the Vikings and Jets at 12-1, and the Patriots at 14-1. The Falcons, Giants, and Steelers are next at 20-1, though the Steelers would be lower if Ben Roethlisberger weren’t suspended for the first four games of the season. Expect Pittsburgh’s odds to plummet if it gets off to a fast start without him.

The lines for opening weekend have been up since April with minimal line movement, except for Thursday night’s game, which because of the annual Brett Favre retirement-unretirement saga fluctuated from 4 to as high as 6 1/2 and back down again. The other big move came in the Packers-Eagles game, which opened at pick-em but is now at Packers –3. The 49ers opened as a 2-point road favorite over the Seahawks, and that has gone up to 3.

Other than those two, most of the lines have stayed the same or been bet down by half a point. I love backing underdogs, and this first week is no exception. I’m going with four plays on Sunday and Monday. These were posted a month ago at my ViewFromVegas.com website when better lines were widely available − Lions +7, Texans +3, Redskins +4, Ravens +3 − but I still like them at the current numbers and will use them in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest. Besides, I think they all have great chances at outright upsets.

Lions +6 1/2 vs. Bears

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and my second daughter is named Peyton − not after Peyton Manning but Walter Payton − but one of the first lessons you learn when gambling is that you have to bet with your head and not your heart. The Bears shouldn’t be favored by a touchdown over anyone. The Lions should be much improved. I don’t think they’ll contend for a playoff spot, but I predict they will finish the season above .500 against the spread. Another way to play this if we don’t see +7 again is to take the Lions +3 1/2 in the first half.

PLAY: Lions for 1 unit.

Texans +2 1/2 vs. Colts

The Texans have been on the cusp of breaking through the last few years, and this should be their first winning season. This opening game is huge for them if they want to compete in the AFC South, and while they usually fall short after hanging tough with the Colts − hmmm, another candidate for a first-half bet? − I think they have enough firepower to knock off the Colts here as a home underdog. The oddsmakers feel the Texans are live with such a low spread, and the wise guys and public have bet it lower.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Redskins +3 1/2 vs. Cowboys

Donovan McNabb’s health is a question, but he’s expected to start. Half the games opening weekend have road favorites, and I like this home dog, though I’m a little leery since I’m basing the play a lot on what I saw in the preseason. But I saw the Redskins clicking on offense when McNabb was in there, plus the Cowboys’ starters never got on track. I guess Tony Romo & Co. could flip the switch, but I’m betting against it.

PLAY: Redskins for 1 unit.

Ravens +2 1/2 vs. Jets

This is the first game of the Monday night doubleheader.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Last year in DRF: 37-28 (55.4 percent) for net profit of 3.8 units (2-4 with 2-unit plays).