01/14/2005 12:00AM

Count on Vikes to keep things close vs. Eagles

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For the second straight weekend, the NFL has saved the two most highly anticipated playoff games for Sunday.

Last week, the Rams-Seahawks and Jets-Chargers games on Saturday ended up being closer than the Colts-Broncos and Vikings-Packers on Sunday, and this Saturday's Jets-Steelers and Rams-Falcons matchups might be nail-biters, too. Sunday's games, however, have many more storylines.

The NFC-favored Eagles host the offensive-minded, defensively challenged Vikings in the early game, with the highly popular Colts taking on the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots in the nightcap.

I find myself liking the upstart Vikings as an underdog while siding with the favored Patriots in what should be two highly entertaining games.

Vikings (+9) at Eagles

These teams met way back in the second week of the season. The Eagles won, 27-16, but it was much closer than that. In fact, a good argument could be made that the Vikings matched up very well and outplayed the Eagles.

That's what it looks like with the raw numbers. Yardage: Vikings 410, Eagles 317. First downs: Vikings 25, Eagles 19. Time of possession: Vikings 37:53, Eagles 22:07.

Stats can certainly be misleading, but if you remember back to that game, there also were certain key plays that made the score more lopsided than it should have been.

The Eagles were up 10-6 late in the first half and it looked like the Vikings were going in for a score when Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper fumbled on the 1-yard line. That was a huge momentum swing, and the Eagles built their lead to 20-6. The Vikings trailed 20-9 when Terrell Owens caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb. Although Owens was clearly out of bounds, Minnesota coach Mike Tice didn't challenge the play. You take away those two plays and it was a much different game.

The Eagles went on to post an NFC-best 13-3 record while the Vikings failed to live up to expectations and finished 8-8. The Vikings, 1-21 in their previous 22 outdoor games, got a big monkey off their back last week with the win at Green Bay, and they seem intent on taking advantage on their second chance in the second season.

Meanwhile, the Eagles come into this game off not only their bye week but also two straight losses in which their starters barely played. It has been more than a month since their last high-level performance, the 47-17 win over the Packers on Dec. 5.

How the Eagles handle that rust will go a long way toward deciding this contest. They are also playing without Owens, and there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the ability of McNabb's other weapons to pick up the slack.

The Vikings are also not at full strength as Randy Moss still has a bum ankle, but Nate Burleson has emerged as a go-to guy. In picking the Vikings, I just wish I could trust Tice to bang away with the running game (and that's why I was secretly hoping the Packers would beat the Vikings, so it would be the Rams traveling to Philly), but the tag team of Michael Bennett and Onterio Smith can also have success and complement the passing of Culpepper.

Bye teams traditionally roll in this round of the playoffs, but barring any fluke plays like the first meeting, I certainly see this game being decided by less than a touchdown either way.

PLAY: Vikings for 1 unit.

Colts at Patriots (-2)

The sports books here in Las Vegas already know they're going to need the Patriots to win this game by more than a field goal. This line opened Patriots -3, but the early money came in on the Colts and it continued all week. As of noon Friday, the highest spread was -2, with the Stardust, MGM Mirage, Stations, and Leroy's outlets at 1 1/2.

The whole world seems to be falling in love with the Colts.

I will be on the other side with the books, which generally isn't a bad side to be on. (Note: USC opened -3 vs. Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and rolled even though the line got bet to pick-em and even Oklahoma -1 in some places.)

The Colts' recent success is well documented, but the fact remains that the Colts in general and Peyton Manning in particular struggle against the Patriots. New England has won the last five games in the series, including last year's AFC championship game and the season opener this year. Until Manning can figure out how to decipher the Patriots' defense - which is especially a mystery for immobile quarterbacks such as himself and Drew Bledsoe - I have to take the Pats, especially laying so few points at home.

Yes, I'm aware of the Patriots' injury woes, but the system is intact and coach Bill Belichick has always been great at game planning even with a skeleton crew.

In addition, while the Colts' offense gets all the kudos, the Patriots are nearly as potent. Tom Brady is a big-game player, and even if Manning has a big day, there's no reason to think Brady can't match him score for score against a porous Indy defense. In addition, the Pats have the edge in the running game with Corey Dillon carrying the load.

In the playoffs, it's wise to back the running game and defense.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-1 for a net profit of 1.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 44-43-3 for a net loss of 3.3 units.