12/07/2001 12:00AM

Brooks-to-Horn aid Saints march


LAS VEGAS - The college football regular season is behind us, so football bettors have no excuses now about lacking time to handicap NFL games.

In Utopia, that would mean that bettors should have an easier time beating the bookmakers. In the real world, it means that the oddsmakers are also able to devote more time to analyzing fewer games on the board and the numbers get tighter. The battle to beat them wages on.

Saints (-3) at Falcons

It looks like Chris Chandler will start after all, but that actually could be a negative for the Falcons. For one thing, Atlanta is devising its game plan with Chandler in the lineup, yet it is probably odds-on that he won't finish the game. That puts backups Michael Vick and Doug Johnson at a disadvantage if forced into duty as they were last week versus the Rams.

Besides, Vick is the Falcons' best runner, and they will be hard-pressed to run on the Saints' defense without him in the game. Saints QB Aaron Brooks hooked up with WR Joe Horn 13 times last week for 150 yards. If the referees don't get in the way again, they could put up similar numbers against the Falcons' defense.

Play: Saints for 22 units.

49ers (+7) at Rams (under 55)

All eyes will be on this NFC West matchup of two teams at 9-2. The winner takes a big step toward securing home field in the NFC playoffs. Both teams have great offenses and average defenses, so they should trade scores back and forth, and that's why I like the 49ers to stay within a touchdown and at least cover the spread. But even though it should be a shootout, I'm not expecting the game to go over the 55 points. There will be much offense, but the total is too high (in anticipation no doubt of bettors looking to the over with these two high-octane offenses). With each team expecting the other to throw the ball, it will open up the running game for 49ers RB Garrison Hearst and Rams RB Marshall Faulk. They will each get a lot of yards, but running the ball also keeps the clock running, as does the high-percentage passing of both 49ers QB Jeff Garcia and Rams QB Kurt Warner. So, this should be a close battle in the 24-20 range.

Play: 49ers for 11 units and under for 11 units.

Bears (+5 1/2) at Packers (over 37)

If it weren't for the 49ers-Rams matchup, this would be the game of the day, with the NFC Central lead on the line. The Bears are a game ahead of the Packers, but the Pack won in Chicago last month and will gain the tiebreaker with another win. Nevertheless, this is a good spot for the Bears because the Pack comes off a Monday night win.

Also, RB Anthony Thomas is expected to return for the Bears, and his presence should help open up the passing game. Packers QB Brett Favre showed his magic again Monday night, and he might pull this one out, too. But hopefully, only by a field goal.

Play: Bears for 11 units and over for 11 units.

Jets at Steelers (-3 1/2)

This line has dropped a point with Pittsburgh RB Jerome Bettis listed as doubtful, but that's fine with me. The Steelers' defense is the key here, and it should be able to slow down Jets RB Curtis Martin and the lackluster New York passing game. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher will use Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (74 yards on

12 carries after replacing Bettis last week vs. the Vikings) and speedy Amos Zereoue to fill Bettis's shoes. They hardly will lose a step against the Jets' defense.

Play: Steelers for 11 units.

More over/under plays

Weather could play a role in two totals plays I'm making. The Browns and Patriots have both succeeded this year when they play conservatively and do only enough to win. That makes it hard to commit to a side, but it makes the under a definite play, especially with a cold front (temperatures in the 30's and a 70 percent chance of rain or snow) headed toward New England. This should be a battle of field position, and points will be at a premium with a final score something like 16-13 - well below the posted total of 37.

On the other hand, the Lions and Buccaneers should open up their offenses in sunny Tampa Bay. The Bucs will be able to move at will against the Lions' porous defense, but the Lions have shown a knack for staying in games despite their winless record. The two teams should combine to put up well over 40 points, and the total is only 36.

Play: Browns-Patriots under 37 and Lions-Bucs over 36 for 11 units each.

Starting bankroll: 1,000 units.

Bankroll entering last week: 939 units.

Last week: 3-2-1, for net profit of 8 units.

Current bankroll: 947 units.