11/20/2008 1:00AM

Cheers for Steelers turn to groans

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ESPN Classic is the History Channel for sports nuts. I often find myself stopping and reliving great games. If sports bettors had an equivalent network, last Sunday's Chargers-Steelers game would have been an instant classic.

Unless you're like Donovan McNabb and don't watch TV replay shows or read newspapers after each week's games (and that's the only explanation that makes sense for him not to know NFL regular-season games can end in ties even though he was in the league in 2002 when the Falcons tied the Steelers), I don't need to recap what happened at the end of the game. We've all seen it more than "It's a Wonderful Life." But I will anyway from my Vegas point of view.

The Steelers closed as a 4 1/2-point favorite over the Chargers. Mainstream media outlets have mostly reported it as Steelers -5 but I know it dropped to 4 1/2 at most books that afternoon (including the Las Vegas Hilton, which I use as the book of record for the NFL against-the-spread standings in the accompanying chart) because I was looking for the Chargers +5. Regardless, when the Steelers kicked a field goal to go up 11-10, it looked like the Chargers were going to cover. But then the famous play with multiple laterals saw Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu knock the ball away and score the spread-covering touchdown. I was in the Hilton Theater watching all the games in my usual spot and the place went berserk with Steelers' bettors thinking they had a miracle windfall. Many left the theater not even knowing there was a review, and then just about everyone else left when referee Scott Green said there was an illegal forward pass penalty against the Chargers and that it was declined by Pittsburgh and the result was a touchdown. Of course, we all know now that the referees ended up confusing themselves by talking further and ruled the play should have been blown dead, took the TD off the board, and ended the game.

The sports books here waited to make the result official because they have been burned in the past by just relying on what they see on TV. But the ruling stood despite Green later admitting that the play should have counted.

Confusion reigned at the windows as Pittsburgh bettors went to cash their tickets only to be told the bad news.

* The Titans didn't need any help as they rallied to win and cover against the Jaguars to improve to 9-0-1 atop the NFL ATS standings. The Giants have covered five straight games to stand at 8-2. On the bottom end of the spectrum, the Rams, Jaguars, and Vikings are 3-7 ATS. The Bills have failed to cover four in a row after a hot start. The Texans are 9-1 with the over and this week face the Browns, who have gone over in three straight games, with a total of 49 1/2. The Redskins have the best record with the under at 7-2-1.

* After going 3-0 last week, I have moved into a tie for first place in the Leroy's Pro Challenge and sixth place in the Hilton SuperContest, both of which require five plays a week. In this space (and since I haven't decided on my final contest plays), I will focus in on three more best bets for Sunday, with two of the shortest underdogs on the card and the biggest dog remaining on the weekend.

Patriots +1.5 vs. Dolphins

Unlike a lot of handicappers, I don't put too much stock in "revenge." I'm more likely to think that if Team A beat Team B last time, they're probably better and will win again. However, in this case, I like the Patriots to avenge their embarrassing 38-13 loss to the Dolphins in Week 3. Both teams are 6-4 (and 5-5 against the spread), but I still believe the Pats are the better overall team. New England coach Bill Belichick has a tendency to do well with real or perceived extra motivation and the Pats' defense will be much better prepared against the "wildcat offense" that burned them repeatedly the first time around. I was actually surprised when the Dolphins opened as the favorite after struggling to win (and failing to cover) in their last two games, which came against the Seahawks and Raiders, but I will take any points I can get.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

49ers +10 vs. Cowboys

After going 2-0 against the spread last week with the Raiders vs. the Dolphins and Lions vs. the Panthers, double-digit NFL dogs are now 17-1 against the spread this year, using the closing lines at the Las Vegas Hilton. But I like this game for more reasons than that. The Cowboys, despite the return of Tony Romo, are not the same team they were early in the season, as we saw in a less-than-dominating 14-10 win over the Redskins last Sunday night. Meanwhile, the 49ers covered the past two weeks, in a valiant effort vs. the Cardinals and then a rout of the Rams. It would not shock me at all if the 49ers pulled the outright upset, so obviously I have to take the generous points.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Panthers +1.5 vs. Falcons

I took a stand last week against the Falcons as an overvalued favorite vs. the Broncos - and I think the Panthers are clearly better than the Broncos. I'm not getting as many points as last week, but I don't think I will need them. The Panthers' pass rush will cause problems for Atlanta rookie sensation Matt Ryan, while the Carolina running game is picking up steam with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both gaining more than 100 yards last week. Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme should have success off play-action all day long. Like the Pats-Dolphins game, it looks like the wrong team is favored.

PLAY: Panthers for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-0 for a net profit of 3 units. Season DRF record: 15-8-2, including 1-2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net profit of 5 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1).