01/13/2003 1:00AM

Bucs take the first hit, then Eagles


For the first time in five years, the top two seeds in the AFC and NFC have advanced to meet in the conference championship games.

Oddsmakers had to wait for last Sunday's winners to be determined before posting odds on this Sunday's title games.

By the time the Buccaneers had grabbed a 28-6 halftime lead on the 49ers, Bob Scucci and Joe Lupo had already been talking with their consultants and debating where to open the lines. Scucci has replaced Lupo as the director of race and sports book operations at the Stardust, with Lupo helping in the transition until he moves to take a senior management position at the Borgata in Atlantic City after the Super Bowl.

When the Bucs intercepted a pass on the 49ers' first possession after halftime and added a field goal for a 31-6 lead more than six minutes into the second half, the Stardust posted the home-team Eagles as a 3 1/2-point favorite over the Buccaneers and a total of 35 1/2. The money line was set at -180 (bet $1.80 to win $1) on the Eagles and +160 (bet $1 to win $1.60) on the Bucs.

Scucci said a professional bettor took the Bucs +3 1/2 right away and the line was lowered to 3. Scucci said the pros then bet it back up to 3 1/2, where it stayed the rest of the day. There was more movement with the total, which was bet down to 34 1/2 within the hour before finally settling at 34.

"That kind of surprised me because I was thinking we might have set it too low at 35 1/2, based on what our consultants told us and other numbers out there [offshore]," Scucci said. "But the bettors obviously think the defenses will dominate, and maybe they're counting on bad weather."

The Bucs also took early money on the money line, as the Stardust lowered it to -170/+150, though Eagles money came in the rest of the afternoon and it was bet back up to -185/+165.

After the Raiders and Jets played to a 10-10 halftime tie, Scucci and Lupo knew they would have to wait longer to post odds on the AFC championship game. The Raiders scored on two Rich Gannon touchdown passes to take 24-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, but Scucci and Lupo still held off on posting a Raiders-Titans matchup. The previous week, Olympic Sports, an offshore book, had egg on its face for posting a Giants-Buccaneers line when the Giants were leading the 49ers by 24 points at the start of the second half. The book took a reported $175,000 in wagers that it had to refund when the matchup was voided by the 49ers' 39-38 comeback victory.

But once the Raiders added two more field goals for a 30-10 lead at the two-minute warning, the Stardust opened the Raiders at -7 (-120), meaning if you wanted to lay the 7 you would also have to lay $1.20 to win $1. Early bettors did just that and bet it up to 7 1/2 within the first half hour. The total was set at 47 with the money line at Raiders -360 to win straight-up and the Titans at +280. None of those lines moved the rest of Sunday afternoon.

Lupo said there wasn't much debate over making the Raiders a 7-point choice with the money-line attached.

"Both Bob and I settled on that quickly," Lupo said. "It's easy to set numbers at this time of year. We've all seen the teams play a lot, and we can tell which way the bettors are likely to bet."

Sights set on Super Bowl

The Stardust also adjusted its Super Bowl futures for the four remaining teams. The Raiders are the even-money favorite to win Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego on Jan. 26. The Eagles are a strong second choice at 7-5, with the Buccaneers at 5-2 and the Titans at 6-1.

On the "Stardust Line" radio show on Monday morning, Lupo gave ballpark numbers for what the Super Bowl point spread might be. He said the Raiders would be between a 1-and 3-point favorite over the Eagles, and about the same vs. the Bucs, perhaps a little higher at 3 1/2. He also said the Eagles or Bucs would be somewhere between 3 1/ 2- and 6-point favorites over the Titans. He said the final number will depend on what happens this Sunday.

"The Super Bowl is the biggest public wagering game of the year," Lupo said. "Everyone will be watching these two games, and their perceptions will influence how they're going to bet."

For comparison sake, the Imperial Palace has had an AFC vs. NFC line up for the past two months, ranging from the NFC -1 1/2 to the AFC -2 1/2. As of noon Monday, the AFC was at -2 with the total at 43 1/2.

Weekend wrap-up

Bettors as a whole fared pretty well against the bookmakers over the weekend, aided by three of the four favorites covering.

The Titans, who won as a home favorite, failed to cover in their 34-31 overtime win over the Steelers on Saturday. That line had opened at Titans -3 1/2 and was bet up to -5 by kickoff. The Titans looked like a strong play when they grabbed a 14-0 first-quarter lead, but comeback player of the year Tommy Maddox brought the Steelers back, and Pittsburgh actually grabbed a 20-14 lead before Titans re-rallied. The game flew over the total of 44.

The Eagles were a solid 7 1/2-point choice over the Falcons in Saturday night's prime-time clash. The Falcons hung in the game and the score stood at 13-6 for the longest time. It looked like the Falcons were actually going to tie the game on a thrilling Michael Vick scramble in the third quarter, but the play was called back on a holding penalty. The Eagles went up 20-6 with 6:26 remaining, and Eagles backers had to sweat out a potential back-door cover. The under, set at 39, was never in doubt.

Bettors really made out with the Bucs being bet from -4 1/2 to -6 1/2 as they easily won 31-6. Over bettors, with the total set at 39, suffered a bad beat as neither team scored in the final 23 minutes of the Bucs' victory.

Actually, an amazing chain of events late in the game had the Stardust sports book rocking. The 49ers were driving and those with the over were cheering for one more score (many even suggesting they kick a field goal just to get the over). Those with the under wanted a defensive stop or a turnover. Well, they got their turnover when the Bucs' Ronde Barber intercepted a Jeff Garcia pass, and the under bettors cheered. But their cheers turned to groans and were drowned out by the cheers of the over bettors as Barber returned it for a touchdown. The people cheering and groaning were reversed again when the play was called back on a face-mask penalty on the Bucs.

When the Raiders easily covered the 5 1/2-point spread vs. the Jets, bookmakers ended up with a losing day, but they were saved by both the 49ers-Bucs and Jets-Raiders games staying under the totals.

"If both had gone over, it would have been a disaster," Lupo said.

Bankroll bottoms out, bounces back

My NFL bankroll went 0-3 on Saturday and bounced back with a 3-0 showing on Sunday. Saturday's 1-unit losses were on the Titans -4 and the Steelers-Titans under 44, and then I dropped 2 units on the Falcons +7 1/2.

Sunday, I won 1 unit on the Buccaneers -5 1/2 and under 39 and finished the weekend with a 3-unit best-bet win on the Raiders -5 1/2.

For the playoffs, my picks are 6-5, including 5-2 on sides and 1-3 on totals (someone stop me from picking totals), for a net profit of 1.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).