09/23/2004 11:00PM

Dolphins better than perceived

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LAS VEGAS - After I used five underdogs last week in the NFL and went a dismal 1-4, a reader wrote to ask if I would give up on picking dogs. My response was: "There's nothing wrong with picking underdogs; I've just been playing the wrong dogs."

This week, I hope to be on the right ones, plus I am going with one favorite, albeit the smallest chalk you can have.

Steelers at Dolphins (-1)

It's not often that the Dolphins are this small of a favorite at home, especially against a mediocre opponent, but that's how down everyone seems to be on Miami. The Dolphins lost David Boston to injury, Ricky Williams to retirement, and looked woeful in their opening-season loss to the Titans. But I don't think they're as bad as most people think. The loss to the Titans was only 17-7, so the defense played well. Last week, they lost 16-13 at Cincinnati and showed sparks on offense while still being solid on defense. This week, Miami's D gets to face rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is making his first NFL start. Rookie QB's tend to struggle, even when they are top prospects and even when going against defenses far worse than Miami's. The Dolphins should be able to shut down the Steelers' running game, just like the Ravens did last week, and pressure the rookie when he drops back to pass. This should allow Miami quarterback A.J. Feeley, who is feeling more comfortable with the offense, to do just enough to get the victory. A key turnover or two could turn it into a rout.

PLAY: Dolphins for 1 unit.

Ravens at Bengals (+2 1/2)

Since I like the Dolphins, it's probably no surprise that I would like the Bengals - they beat the Dolphins and now face the team that beat the Steelers. The Bengals will not have to change their offensive game plan much from last week. The Ravens will find it harder to shut down the Bengals' ground game with Rudi Johnson, and Carson Palmer will certainly benefit this week from having faced the Dolphins. The Bengals' defense is on the improve and should hold up well vs. the Ravens' pedestrian offense as long as they key on Jamal Lewis and don't let him run wild, which he has yet to do this season. When the Ravens are forced to pass, they're in trouble, especially with receiver Travis Taylor and tight end Todd Heap out with injuries. The Bengals should get the upset at home.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Saints (+7) at Rams

This line would likely have been Rams -5 or -6 if Deuce McAllister hadn't gotten hurt for the Saints, but his injury doesn't deter me in the least. In fact, I will gladly take the inflated line. McAllister is great, but a lot of times I think the Saints get themselves in a hole when they try to establish the ground game and always seem to be playing from behind. Then they play their sandlot style of football and move the ball much better with talented receivers such as Joe Horn, Donte Stallworth, Jerome Pathon, and tight end Boo Williams. The Rams nearly rallied to knock off the Falcons last week before falling apart, but they're clearly not the dominant offense they've been in the past, and the Saints can keep up with them in a shootout. I'm looking at this as the biggest outright upset of the week.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

49ers (+10) at Seahawks

Six teams in the NFL are 2-0 against the spread. It's not hard to guess the Jets, Jaguars, Eagles, Lions, and Seahawks because they're also 2-0 straight up. The sixth team? The 49ers. Yep, the 49ers, with a record of 0-2 in the standings, have covered the spread in both their losses: 21-19 to the Falcons as a 3-point underdog in their opener, and then 30-27 to the Saints as a 7-point dog. This Sunday, they're getting double digits vs. the Seahawks, a team many are expecting to contend for the NFC title. The problem with the Seahawks laying 10 points, even at home where they have been strong, is that they've only averaged 15.5 points in their first two games. The 49ers' defense probably won't be able to hold the Seahawks down that much, but it should be able to keep the offense in the game. San Fran running back Kevan Barlow looks like he's healthy enough to play, and that helps take the pressure off quarterback Ken Dorsey, who played beyond his years last week in his first NFL start. The 49ers might lose again, but they should keep it close enough to get the cover.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Buccaneers (+3) at Raiders

By the time this game kicks off, we will all be sick of all the talk about this being the rematch of Super Bowl XXXVII, Jon Gruden's return to the Bay, Warren Sapp facing the Bucs for the first time, Tim Brown facing the Raiders for the first time, whether Super Bowl quarterbacks Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon need to be replaced, whether Jerry Rice will start a new streak, blah, blah, blah. But I think the storyline that is being overlooked is Charlie Garner, who I see having a big game for the Buccaneers. The Tampa Bay offense obviously needs to do something, as it has yet to score an offensive touchdown this season, but I see Garner having a breakout game vs. his former team and setting up Johnson and the passing game. Meanwhile, the Bucs' defense has looked as solid as ever, even without Sapp and safety John Lynch, and should hold down the Raiders and pull the Sunday night upset.

PLAY: Buccaneers for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-4 for a net loss of 3.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 3-7 for a net loss of 4.7 units.