01/08/2009 12:00AM

Days of top-seed domination are over


A week ago, we were anticipating a wild weekend as all four wild-card teams opened as favorites on the road at division champs.

The Cardinals were bet to favoritism vs. the Falcons and it ended up that the faves won three of the four games. The Chargers over the Colts was the only upset, and that game was available at pick-em at various times, so that certainly wasn't a shocker.

That's parity for you.

We get another dose of parity this week. Parity and the NFL have been mentioned in the same sentence for years, but it used to be that when you would get to the divisional round of the playoffs, the teams that earned the top seeds in their respective conferences would be huge favorites over the teams that had to play on wild-card weekend . . . and then they would go out and prove their dominance by covering anyway.

Starting in January 1991 when the NFL went to the current format of giving the top seeds a first-round bye, favorites went 30-6 straight up and 22-13-1 (63 percent) against the spread over the next nine years, according to Marc Lawrence of playbook.com. But the past eight years, favorites are just 25-11 straight up and a losing 16-19-1 (46 percent) against the spread, and they are 0-4 and 1-3 the past two seasons.

This weekend, we have only one spread that is more than a touchdown - Carolina -10 vs. Arizona and it's not even by a No. 1 seed. In fact, in the AFC, the No. 2-seeded Steelers are a bigger favorite over their foe than the No. 1-seeded Titans. Maybe this is the wilder weekend.

Personally, I went 2-2 last week as I won with the Cardinals vs. the Falcons, lost with the Colts vs. Chargers, won with the Ravens-Dolphins under and then lost with the Vikings vs. the Eagles. This weekend I like two underdogs, one favorite and one total.

Cardinals +10 vs. Panthers

Let's start with the Saturday night game since I like it best. As I write this, I'm watching the replay of the Week 8 game between these two teams and can't believe the Cardinals didn't win. They led 10-3 at the half (and it should have been more except for an ill-advised fake field goal attempt by the Cards right before halftime). The Cards then scored to start the third quarter to lead 17-3 and were totally dominating. The Panthers rallied, helped by a momentum-changing fumble by Edgerrin James and a missed Arizona extra point, to win 27-23 but did not cover the 4 1/2-point spread. Now they're laying double digits? Remember, double-digit underdogs went 22-9 (71 percent) against the spread this season, and that was mostly with really bad teams getting that many points. Here, we get an underrated Cardinals team that has been showing a more balanced offensive attack the past two weeks (James and Tim Hightower combined for only 20 yards in the first meeting) and a ball-hawking defense. I think the Cards can pull the outright upset, but even if they get behind, the back door should be wide open for their high-flying passing attack.

PLAY: Cardinals for 2 units.

Ravens +3 vs. Titans

These teams are mirror images of each other: strong running games, efficient if not spectacular passing games, very good defenses, etc. This has all the feel of a game that will come down to a field goal either way. In that case, you definitely have to look to the underdog with a win if the Ravens prevail by a field goal and a push if the Titans do. The Titans won the regular-season meeting, 13-10, back when they were playing the best football in the league and the Ravens were just coming into form. The Ravens also remind me of the Giants last year and could make a similar road run to the Super Bowl.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Giants -4 vs. Eagles

These teams split their regular-season meetings with the road team prevailing each time, but I have to give the home team the edge in the rubber match. The Giants aren't coming into the playoffs on the roll they were last year, but that experience certainly helps them here. You have to beat the champ to be the champ, and the Giants are the more balanced team and should be refocused for the playoff run. The Eagles lack consistency and I wasn't impressed with their win last weekend against the Vikings, a team the Giants almost beat in Week 17 with a less-than-100-percent effort.

PLAY: Giants for 1 unit.

Chargers at Steelers (o/u 38)

Last weekend, three of the four games went under their total, which isn't totally unexpected with playoff football. The surprising thing was that all four were played in optimum conditions (either warm-weather cities or in the dome in Minneapolis). This weekend, weather could play a factor in any or all of the four games. I like this under the most. These two teams played to the 11-10 final in Week 11 that had the controversial ending with Troy Polamalu's touchdown being disallowed. The Steelers, who have the No. 1 defense in the league, held the Chargers to 218 yards in conditions that were not ideal but better than the forecast 10- to 20-degree temps with a 30 percent chance of snow for this Saturday in Pittsburgh. The Steelers compiled 410 yards but also had a hard time scoring on the Chargers' defense.

PLAY: Under 38 for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). Season DRF record: 28-16-2, including 2-2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net profit of 10.2 units.