09/26/2002 11:00PM

Break all the old rules

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A lot of handicapping tenets will be under scrutiny on Sunday. For instance, with the Eagles being 20-point favorites over the Texans, we will see if the "never lay more than 10 points in the NFL game" theory holds water.

A lot of these theories start out true but then keep getting recited as gospel long after the value has been bet out of them, and no longer have the winning records to support them.

I will take a pass on that one (even though I have a slight lean to the Eagles), but I find myself going against several other widely held beliefs in week 4 of the NFL.

Patriots (-3) at Chargers

You're not supposed to be betting the defending Super Bowl champion against the spread. That's an angle that has worked for years, especially when the public drives up the price on the defending champs. That isn't the case with the Patriots, who won their first two games as underdogs before being favored at home last week against the Chiefs, a game the Pats won, but failed to cover, 41-38 in overtime. I guess the theory will now be worded "bet against the Super Bowl champ as a home favorite." The Chargers are off to a 3-0 start, but those wins were against the Bengals, Texans, and Cardinals, who are a combined 2-7 (with those wins being the Texans over the Cowboys and Cards over the Seahawks). Drew Brees has fared well, but he will be facing a much, much tougher defense in the Patriots, as New England coach Bill Belichick is sure to have a confusing package for the second-year QB. The Pats had to sweat out their game against the Chiefs last Sunday, and that should serve as a wake-up call. They should romp here.

Play: Patriots for 2 units.

Browns (+6) at Steelers

You're not supposed to bet against the Steelers at home (who were 7-2 against the spread at home last season before losing to the Patriots in the AFC title game) - especially when they're 0-2 and in a "must-win" situation. Well, every week in the 16-game NFL season is a must-win situation and the Steelers haven't stepped up yet. It's the same situation the Rams faced last Monday night, but they still lost and fell to 0-3. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Browns win this straight up (heck, they would be 3-0 if not for Dwayne Rudd losing his head in week 1 vs. the Chiefs), but if not, it should come down to a field goal. The Patriots and Raiders went almost exclusively to the air in beating the Steelers' vaunted defense. That has been the Browns' strength so far this year, so expect them to use the same tactic.

Play: Browns for 1 unit.

Buccaneers (-7) at Bengals

You're not supposed to bet on a team going on the road after a Monday night game. The Bucs fit that profile after beating the Rams last Monday night, but in this case the Bengals aren't likely to put up much of a fight. They're switching to Akili Smith at QB, so they might get even worse (if that's possible). The Buccaneers should pick up the offensive pace against a Cincinnati defense that hasn't lived up to expectations.

Play: Buccaneers for 1 unit.

Panthers at Packers (-7)

A lot of handicappers around town are saying the Panthers are the upset pick this week because they're 3-0 and getting a touchdown from a Green Bay team that has allowed more than 30 points in each of its three games. But I like this spot for the Packers. They're back home, where they always play better, and they won't be taking the undefeated Panthers lightly. The Packers' running backs are banged up, but I think this actually helps them in this spot. I would rather have Brett Favre throwing the ball around Lambeau Field, especially in the fourth quarter, instead of running out the clock.

Play: Packers for 1 unit.

Broncos (-7) at Ravens

You're not supposed to bet road favorites on Monday night. Again, this is more a play against a weak team. ABC has to be kicking itself for scheduling the Ravens. The Broncos are 3-0 after beating the Rams and 49ers outright as underdogs and then not covering in a

28-23 win over the Bills last Sunday. The Ravens don't have the offense to threaten a backdoor cover. And it won't matter if Brian Griese - who stumbled over his dog on Thursday - or Steve Beuerlein starts at quarterback for the Broncos. The offense just needs to scored in the 20's to get the easy cover.

Play: Broncos for 1 unit.

Over/under plays

I went 5-3 with eight unders on last week's card. It doesn't appear oddsmakers have shaded the totals any lower, so I will take a shot with the under in five more games this week for 1 unit apiece: Saints-Lions under 46 1/2, Jets-Jaguars under 42 1/2 (40 percent chance of thunderstorms), Titans-Raiders under 43 1/2, Patriots-Chargers under 41 1/2, and Vikings-Seahawks under 43 1/2.

Season record: 17-16, including a 2-1 record on best bets, for a net profit of 0.3 units.