01/04/2005 12:00AM

Chargers' spread record NFL's top story


LAS VEGAS - This NFL season has been overflowing with great storylines.

The Steelers went 15-1. The Patriots went 14-2 for a second straight year. Peyton Manning was incredible in throwing a record 49 touchdown passes. The Eagles dominated the NFC and now must deal with the loss of Terrell Owens and the rust from resting their starters the final two weeks.

But the story of the year in my book - and in the sports books here in Las Vegas - is the San Diego Chargers. It is absolutely unbelievable what they have done.

For starters, consider that they compiled a 12-4 record despite having an over/under total of 4 1/2 - the lowest in the entire league as the oddsmakers' projected choice as the worst team in the NFL. They were also the longest shot of any team to win a divisional title, at 8-1, to win the AFC West.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The Chargers opened the season as a 4 1/2-point underdog at Houston. They pulled a 27-20 outright upset. They lost 34-28 the following week as a 3-point home underdog to the Jets and then pushed as 10-point dogs the next week in a 23-13 loss at Denver.

They were 1-2 in the standings and 1-1-1 against the spread, so it looked like the season-opening win was probably an aberration, and they were installed as home underdogs the following two weeks versus the Titans and Jaguars. The Chargers upset both foes. The next week they were 5 1/2-point underdogs at Atlanta. They lost the game 21-20 but covered the spread. The next week, they were 3-point dogs at Carolina and beat the Panthers 17-6.

It wasn't until the eighth week of the season that the Chargers were even favored. They routed the Raiders 42-14 as 6 1/2-point favorites and followed that up with a 43-17 thrashing of the Saints as 6 1/2-point favorites heading into their bye week with a 6-3 record, having already surpassed their over/under season win total, and a league-best 7-1-1 mark against the spread.

Their story would have been incredible enough even if they had gone in the tank the rest of the year. But even with oddsmakers adjusting their lines, the Chargers were even more impressive down the stretch. They went 6-1 straight up for the last seven weeks of the season, the only loss being 34-31 to the Colts as a 7-point underdog - a game they seemingly had won - and 6-0-1 against the spread.

The Chargers' 13-1-2 point-spread record surpassed the Patriots' fantastic 13-2-1 mark a season ago. Breaking down the Chargers' record further, they were 6-1-1 at home, the only loss coming in the second week of the season versus the same Jets' team they will face Saturday in the first round of the playoffs. And the Chargers were 3-0-1 as home favorites, which they will be Saturday.

So, even if the Chargers lose this week or win and fail to cover, they will still be credited with the most impressive point-spread performance in recent memory. And what about the Patriots who went on to win the Super Bowl last year? Here's an interesting note: That Patriots team finished 1-2 against the spread in the playoffs - with a non-covering 17-14 win over the Titans in the first round, a spread-covering 24-14 win over the Colts in the AFC title game, and a non-covering 33-29 victory over the Panthers in the Super Bowl.

Over/under season wrapup

While the Chargers won 12 games to obliterate their over/under season win total of 4 1/2, it should be pointed out that the Steelers also exceeded their over/under total by the same 7 1/2-win margin; they finished with 15 wins after having an over/under season win total of 7 1/2. In all, 15 teams went over their over/under win total, 15 teams went under it, and two landed exactly on it (the Ravens and Seahawks at 9 apiece).

The other teams going over include the three teams with the highest total of 10 1/2. The Patriots won 14 games, the Eagles 13, and the Colts 12. Other teams going over were the Packers with 10 wins (9 1/2 the oddskmakers' total), Falcons with 11 (9), Broncos with 10 (9), Jets with 10 (9), Jaguars with 9 (7 1/2), Bills with 9 (7 1/2), Bengals with 8 (7 1/2), Saints with 8 (7 1/2), Texans with 7 (6 1/2), and Cardinals with 6 (5 1/2).

The Dolphins were huge underachievers, with only 4 wins (and they even had to come on strong to get that many) after having a pre-Ricky Williams retirement over/under of 9. The Titans' 5 wins are also 5 under their preseason betting total of 10.

Other teams falling short were the Chiefs with 7 (10), Rams with 8 (9 1/2), Buccaneers with 5 (9), Redskins with 6 (9), Cowboys with 6 (9), Vikings with 8 (8 1/2), Panthers with 7 (8 1/2), Browns with 4 (7 1/2), Raiders with 5 (7 1/2), Bears with 5 (7), Lions with 6 (6 1/2), Giants with 6 (6 1/2), 49ers with 2 (5 1/2).

Probably the biggest surprise on that list is the Giants, who were 5-3 at the midway point of the season but lost eight straight games before winning their season finale.

More hot/not teams

Behind the Chargers' 13-1-2 spread mark, the Patriots were second in the league at 11-3-2, followed by the Steelers at 10-5-1 and the Colts at 9-6-1. The spread records of the other two AFC playoff teams are: Jets (8-7-1) and Broncos (6-7-3). It's much uglier among NFC playoff teams. The Eagles went 9-7, the Falcons 7-8-1, the Packers 7-9, the Vikings 7-9, the Rams 6-10, and the Seahawks 5-11. In fact, the Seahawks were tied with the Titans for the worst spread record in the league.

In totals wagering, the Packers, Colts, and Seahawks all went a league-high 11-5 with the over. Other playoff teams with an over tendency are: the Rams (9-7), Chargers (9-7), and Patriots (8-7-1).

The Jaguars and Redskins had the top best under record at 12-4, followed by the Eagles and Falcons at 11-5. Other playoff teams with an under tendency are the Jets (9-7) and Broncos (9-7)

The Steelers and Vikings were 8-8 with over/unders.

NFL-wide betting trends

Home-field advantage didn't mean much during the regular season, so we'll see if that stays true in the playoffs. After an 8-8 final week, road teams were 132-116-8 overall. Road favorites beat home dogs 41-36-2.

Much of the talk this year was about the top teams covering week after week no matter how much they were favored, but underdogs actually had a 127-119-8 edge after going 10-6 on the final Sunday.

Totals wagering was split 8-8 last week and finished with the under winning by a nose at 128-125-3.