02/02/2004 12:00AM

Field goal wins it for Pats, fans, books

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Super Sunday was a rousing success in Las Vegas. Most fans and bettors had something to be happy about, and so did the sports book operators. How the heck did that happen?

After the New England Patriots defeated the Carolina Panthers, 32-29, fans of New England were happy the Pats won after Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning, 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining; bettors who took Carolina at +7 were happy the Panthers covered.

A lot of fans were also happy with the high-scoring game. The total on the game was 38 - with some books moving the line to 37 1/2 or 38 1/2 depending on where they saw more money. The bettors who took the over cashed as long as they played it straight. Most books saw parlays on Patriots/over and Panthers/under, so those were all losers when the final result turned out to be Panthers/over.

Robert Walker, director of race and sports for the MGM Mirage properties, said, all things considered, it was the best result for the house.

"Traditionally what we talk about is that we would love to have the favorite win but not cover," Walker said. "It doesn't often happen, but it came through this time."

But it took a lot to get it to that point. The game looked like a stone-cold under, with Vinatieri missing two early field goal attempts and no scoring for the first 27 minutes. Bob Scucci, race and sports book director at the Stardust, said a lot of money was bet on under 18 points in the first half, and it looked like a sure thing until the Patriots' Deion Branch (8-1 to score the first touchdown at most books) caught a TD pass from Tom Brady with 3:05 left in the half, followed quickly in succession by a Panthers TD by Steve Smith, a Patriots TD by David Givens, and a Panthers field goal by John Kasay to make the halftime score Patriots 14, Panthers 10.

The Stardust made the Patriots a 3-point favorite in the second half and saw the total get bet up from 17 1/2 to 18 1/2. Just like in the first quarter, there was no scoring in the third quarter, but then the floodgates opened.

On the first official play of the fourth quarter - after a defensive holding call on the Panthers - Antowain Smith scored on a 2-yard run to put the Patriots up, 21-10, and had them beating the spread for the first time. It also put the game within one touchdown of reaching the 38-point total. The Panthers came right back when DeShaun Foster scored on a 33-yard run, but Carolina failed on a 2-point conversion, and the Pats still led 21-16.

Patriots bettors still had hopes of covering. The Pats moved right down the field and appeared ready to at least get a field goal to put them back up by eight points, but Brady was picked off in the end zone. Even so, it looked like the Pats would get the ball back when they forced the Panthers into a third-and-10 from their own 15, but the most shocking play of the game happened when Jake Delhomme threw deep to Muhsin Muhammad, who broke a tackle and rambled 85 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. The Panthers went for another 2-point conversion and were up only 22-21 after it failed.

This left many sports book operators feeling woozy, as bettors had pounded away at the Panthers on the money line (around 2-1 to win the game straight up), and other books were sitting on future-book wagers in the range of 50-1 to 75-1 on Carolina, which started the season 5-0.

Some of those same bookmakers were happy to see the Patriots drive right down the field and reclaim the lead, but then they faced another quandary. After Brady hit Mike Vrabel with a 1-yard TD pass, Kevin Faulk's run for the 2-point conversion put New England up, 29-22.

It was bad enough for the books that the question on whether there would be a 2-point conversion was popular with the public - offering odds of between 7-2 and 4-1 on the "yes" - but their bigger concern at the time was having the margin right on the point-spread of seven.

A lot of shops had the line at 6 1/2 the previous week and took a lot of money on the Patriots. If the game were to land on 7, the shops would have paid off on all those New England wagers, while refunding all bets at 7. Whispers of a "Black Sunday" - such as occurred when the books got middled in the Steelers' 35-31 win over the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXIII, when the line rose from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 - were making the rounds.

But those fears were also short-lived, as the Panthers needed only seven plays to march down the field and tie the game on Ricky Proehl's 12-yard catch from Delhomme to make the score 29-29 with 1:08 to play.

Overtime was looking like a distinct possibility. That was a popular bet with the tourists, who took 5-1 or 6-1 even though there hasn't been an overtime in Super Bowl history. Kasay's kickoff went out of bounds to give the Patriots the ball at the 40, and New England worked it into range for Vinatieri to kick his second Super Bowl-winning field in three years.

It certainly worked out better for the books that the Pats won by 3 instead of getting another TD to win by seven. Jay Kornegay, race and sports book director at the Imperial Palace, said, "If it had landed on 7, we would have been refunding tickets for the next five days."

Walker took it a step further: "We would have been cashing tickets until Vegas got an NBA team."

Kornegay, whose book boasts "the most props on the planet," said he usually is able to keep track of how his book is doing, but this Sunday was different.

"It was a great game for the fans," Kornegay said. "There was so many things going on the last quarter that I didn't know what to root for."

The weekend started ominously for the hotels in Las Vegas, as most of them received letters from the NFL saying that they were in violation of U.S. copyright law for holding pay-per-view events on the game with screens larger than would normally be found in a household.

While some parties had to be canceled (most notably in large venues at the Palms, Orleans, and Aladdin), most hotels just brought in smaller televisions or waived the admission fees, and the show went on. By Sunday morning, however, that was the farthest thing from everyone's mind, as bettors lined up - hundreds deep at many casinos with hours to go before kickoff - to make their wagers on everything from the side and total to the hundreds of available proposition wagers that have become so popular on Super Sunday.

The Nevada record for Super Bowl handle was $77.2 million for the 1998 game between the Broncos and Packers. Last year's Buccaneers-Raiders matchup drew $71.7 million.

In the two weeks before the game, most sports book directors were preparing for a fall-off in wagering, with two less-than-marquee teams. But many were pleasantly surprised after the game, saying wagering on propositions continued to grow and make up for any big money that has been lost to the offshore industry. The Nevada Gaming Control Board is expected to release its official statewide figures Tuesday.