12/28/2001 12:00AM

Don't overlook less-crucial games


LAS VEGAS, Nev. - At this point of the NFL season, most of the attention by oddsmakers and bettors is given to teams that are fighting for playoff spots and/or position. But it often pays to take a closer look at games that might not get as much scrutiny to try and find some edges. Let's start by looking at a few of those.

Browns at Titans (-6 1/2)

The Browns got all the life sucked out of them with the instant replay fiasco two weeks ago and were listless in Green Bay last week (a 30-7 loss). The Titans are on the other end of the spectrum as they're playing like one of the top teams in the league right now. They've beaten the Packers and Raiders the last two weeks, but unfortunately for them it's too late to make the playoffs. Regardless, expect coach Jeff Fisher to have the Titans finish the season strong and look out for them next year. Play: Titans for 22 units.

Cardinals (+1) at Panthers

The Panthers still haven't won since opening day. They've covered the spread in six of their 13 losses, but they don't have that luxury this time as they're a slight favorite. The Cardinals have improved as the season has progressed. They've been in most of their recent games, though they've lost some close ones to keep them out of playoff contention. Both teams will be playing with nothing to lose, and the Cardinals have to be given the edge in that kind of shootout with gunslinger Jake Plummer. Play: Cardinals for 11 units.

Seahawks (-1 1/2) at Chargers

The Seahawks have been playing well down the stretch, but had their playoff hopes severely damaged when the Giants rallied to beat them 27-24 Sunday and then the Jets won on Sunday night. In fact, they could be officially eliminated by the time this game kicks off if the Dolphins and Jets win during the early games. Still, they're playing more inspired than the Chargers at this point and get Trent Dilfer at QB in place of the injured Matt Hasselbeck (many argue that they'd be a playoff team if Dilfer was playing all season). The Chargers haven't won in more than two months, and that back on Oct. 28 in the Flutie vs. Johnson Bowl against the Bills. That motivation is long gone. Play: Seahawks for 11 units.

Colts (+13) at Rams

The Rams have the best offense in the league and the Colts' defense is among the worst, but I still can't see the Rams pulling away in this game because of the Colts' ability to strike from anywhere on the field. The Colts can match the Rams score for score if Peyton Manning avoids interceptions and Dominick Rhodes doesn't fumble (both of which are big Ifs). With the Rams likely to pull starters if they get up by three touchdowns or so, there's an increased chance for a backdoor cover in case it's needed. Play: Colts for 11 units.

Steelers (-8) at Bengals

The Steelers beat the Bengals 16-7 on Oct. 7 in Pittsburgh and the Steelers are playing even better than they were at that time and the Bengals are playing much worse. The Steelers just keep rolling along, trying to wrap up home field in the playoffs, while the Bengals have lost seven straight and are 2-5 against the spread in those seven games. If the Steelers don't remember how they shut down the Bengals in that first meeting, they just need to see the game films from the Ravens' 16-0 shutout of Cincy last week and the Browns' 18-0 whitewashing four weeks ago. Don't expect Corey Dillon to put up 100 yards like he did last week. The Steelers should win by something like 24-10. Play: Steelers for 11 units.

49ers (-6) at Cowboys

The Cowboys are a scary team to bet against because their defense keeps them in a lot of games and Quincy Carter keeps showing signs of developing into a solid NFL quarterback. But the 49ers are playing at a different level with a highly explosive offense (the 13 points put up vs. a strong Eagles defense last Saturday was the exception rather than the rule) and an improving defense. The Cowboy's defensive line might be able to slow down the 49ers' running game, but Jeff Garcia should get the job done through the air. Play: 49ers for 11 units.

Starting NFL bankroll: 1,000 units.

Bankroll entering this weekend: 923 units, with 11 units on Ravens +1 on Saturday night.