01/10/2003 12:00AM

Favorites make for a giving mood


LAS VEGAS - In the past dozen years since the NFL went to its current playoff format with two teams in each conference receiving first-round byes, those teams have won 39 of the 48 games (81.3 percent) in the divisional playoffs.

There are many reasons for that, foremost being that they are almost always the better team. In addition, they are well rested and taking on a team that had to survive the week before and (usually) also had to give top efforts in the closing weeks of the regular season just to get into the playoffs.

Home-field advantage, despite being negligible during the regular season, is very real in the NFL postseason. Three of the four home teams won last weekend with the 12th man playing a role in their come-from-behind (albeit non-covering) victories. More often than not, playoff games tend to be decided by 14 points or more. Last week, it looked like all four were going to be blowouts before the Steelers and 49ers rallied.

So, although I almost always look for spots to take the points, I'm on three favorites this weekend. The Falcons, getting 7 1/2 vs. the Eagles is the one exception, but part of that play was because I was getting more than a touchdown.

Jets at Raiders (-5 1/2)

I'm putting my 2-1 record on 3-unit plays on the line in Sunday's late game. In their previous meeting, on Dec. 2, the Raiders outgained the Jets 411 yards to 274 and were in total control despite penalties and special-team breakdowns that led to the Jets' two first-half scores, but they didn't cover the 7-point closing number in their 26-20 victory. You can see how oddsmakers have shaded this line a little lower because of the Jets' recent form. I don't see the Raiders being any less dominant, though. The Raiders' offense was No. 1 in the league, mostly on the MVP performance of quarterback Rich Gannon, and it should be able to rack up the yardage like it did in the first meeting. The weather forecast calls for a chance of light showers, which also wouldn't bother the Raiders, who showed in their season-finale win over the Chiefs that they are perfectly capable of running over teams as well as throwing over them.

The Jets' offense has also picked up the pace in recent weeks, but it will face a much tougher task than it did against the Packers or Colts the last two weeks. Chad Pennington will have a harder time finding open receivers with the Raiders getting Tory James and (probably) Charles Woodson back at starting cornerback. Their coverage in the secondary will also help the Raiders devote more linebackers to stopping the running attack of Curtis Martin. At the very least, a score like the 26-20 Raiders' win in the first meeting will still get me the cover, but I expect it to be more like the 38-24 Raiders win over the Jets in last year's playoffs.

PLAY: Raiders for 3 units.

49ers at Buccaneers (-5 1/2)

This was the hardest game of the weekend to handicap. When the 49ers are playing well (as in the fourth quarter last week vs. the Giants), they are among the best in the NFL, but a lot of other times they are mediocre at best. The Buccaneers are like that on offense. The one constant, however, has been the Buccaneers' defense, and I feel that will be the difference Sunday. The Buccaneers' defense has allowed an opponent to score three offensive touchdowns (not counting scores when the Bucs' D isn't on the field) only twice all season, and it will be healthy and champing at the bit for this game. Because of the Tampa offense's inconsistency and the return of starting quarterback Brad Johnson, I am also looking to the under. Now, this is a strange combination, because usually someone picking the favorite also looks to the over, while dog bettors foresee a tighter, lower-scoring game and tend to bet under. But the Bucs are a strange team. They were 10-6 against the spread this season and 10-6 with the under. In fact, if you had bet a two-team parlay with the Bucs/under in all 16 of their games this year, you would have cashed seven times, resulting in a 57.5 percent overall profit (for example: $50 per game, total of $800 in wagers, payoff of $180 at the standard 13-5 for a two-teamer, multiplied by seven winning tickets for a gross return of $1,260, which is a 57.5 percent return on the initial $800 investment). For the bankroll, I'm not parlaying the two, but I'm fairly certain that the worst-case scenario is that I break even (minus the vig), with a better-than-average chance of winning both if the score lands in the 23-14 range in favor of the Bucs.

PLAY: Buccaneers for 1 unit, and under 39 1/2 points for 1 unit.

Postseason record: 3-2, including 3-0 on sides and 0-2 on totals, for a net profit of 0.7 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 64-74-4 for net loss of 17.2 units.