12/23/2004 12:00AM

Chargers offense makes for live dog


So many games, so little space. Let's get right to the picks.

Chargers (+7) at Colts

Playoff implications are paramount when looking at this Sunday's NFL games. This matchup is most likely for the No. 3 seed in the AFC and the chance to host the No. 6 seed (lowest-ranked wild card) in the first round. If, however, the Jets upset the Patriots, the winner of this game will have a shot at the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. But all of that is secondary to my main handicapping of this matchup. Last week, the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Colts, 20-10, as an 8-point underdog, but anyone who watched the game should know that if not for a blocked field goal and some miscues by the Baltimore offense, the Ravens should have at least covered. The San Diego offense has been much more consistent than Baltimore's. LaDainian Tomlinson should be able to run through the holes just like Jamal Lewis did for Baltimore (130 yards on just 20 carries vs. Indy), and Drew Brees is better than Kyle Boller and has more weapons. Peyton Manning and Co. should be able to put up points as well, but I trust the San Diego defense more to come up with plays and hopefully set up an upset.

PLAY: Chargers for 1 unit.

Texans (+7) at Jaguars

The Jaguars control their own destiny in the AFC wild-card race, mostly by virtue of their wins over the Bills and Broncos in the first two weeks of the season. So it would seem they have the motivation in this game, but they don't match up well with the Texans. For proof of that, one need only look at the Texans' 20-6 win over the Jags on Halloween. Houston outplayed Jacksonville when the Jags were playing well, having upset the Colts the week before. The Jaguars have won only one game by more than a touchdown, and that was two weeks ago at home against the Bears, 22-3. Last week, the Texans beat the Bears just as handily, 24-5, in Chicago, so I expect them to be able to go to Jacksonville and at least keep it close.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Falcons (+5) at Saints

The Saints, despite being a much worse team, opened at -1 1/2 last Sunday night because the Falcons would have nothing to play for and might rest their starters for the playoffs. As of Thursday morning, the line had gone to Saints -5 because of the news that Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and tight end Alge Crumpler would not play. I certainly understand the reason for the line move, but I'm going to take the other side. I really don't trust the Saints' defense, and Matt Schaub will start at QB for the Falcons. He is only 2 for 7 this year for 9 yards, but you might remember that he was on fire during the preseason. Okay, preseason games are a world apart from regular season, but the Saints' defense won't be much better than what Schaub faced in August. In addition, while some of the Falcons' offensive stars are sitting, the defense should still be playing hard against their divisional rival and put an end to their wild-card hopes.

PLAY: Falcons for 1 unit.

Cardinals (+7) at Seahawks

With a record of 5-9, the Cardinals have no right to even be thinking about the playoffs, yet they can still win the NFC West if they win this game and next week vs. the Buccaneers, plus the Seahawks lose next week to the Falcons and the Rams lose their final two games, vs. the Eagles and Jets. Back on Oct. 24, the Cards shocked the Seahawks 25-17 as 7-point underdogs in Tempe, Ariz. Granted, the Cardinals play much worse away from home (1-6 straight up, 3-4 against the spread), but I would rather have the team that feels it has been given a new lease on life against a team that is playing scared because it hasn't lived up to expectations.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-2 for a net profit of 0.8 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 34-38-3 for a net loss of 7.6 units.

Bowl season picking up steam

After a break on Saturday and Sunday, the college bowl season resumes Monday. I like both games Monday and one of the two on Tuesday.


MPC Computers Bowl
Fresno St. (+5 1/2) vs. Virginia

Fresno St. won and covered its last five games in blowouts after a midseason three-game losing streak, which included setbacks to bowl-bound UTEP and Boise St. Virginia saw its BCS bowl hopes evaporate in a 24-10 loss to Virginia Tech and I just don't see how the Cavaliers can get up for this game.

PLAY: Fresno St. for 1 unit.

Motor City Bowl
Toledo (-3 1/2) vs. Connecticut

It's good news for Toledo backers that quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is expected to play, because he ignites the Rockets' offense. Toledo lost its first two games of the year, vs. Minnesota and Kansas, and then its only loss the rest of the year was to Miami-Ohio, which it avenged in the MAC title game. Speaking of the MAC, a lot of people saw how impressive Bowling Green looked Wednesday night in dismantling Memphis 52-35 in the GMAC Bowl, and that certainly flatters Toledo, which beat Bowling Green 49-41. UConn's program has made great strides, but I can't give it too much credit for coming out of the Big East, which is a shadow of its former self, further evidenced by Syracuse's embarrassing 51-14 loss to Georgia Tech in Tuesday's Champs Sports Bowl.

PLAY: Toledo for 1 unit.


Independence Bowl
Iowa St. (+3) vs. Miami-Ohio

The MAC may deserve a lot of respect, but I was still surprised to see Miami-Ohio come favored against Big 12 representative Iowa St., which was very close to winning the Big 12's North Division. The Cyclones have a lot to prove after their 17-14 loss to Missouri knocked them out of the conference championship game and a shot at a much better bowl. I'll take the short dog here.

PLAY: Iowa St. for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 1-1 through Wednesday's loss on Memphis +4 1/2 vs. Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl. College season record: 29-22-1 for a net profit of 4.8 units.