01/30/2009 12:00AM

First, get the 7 points - then bet Arizona

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LAS VEGAS - Every year, the Super Bowl dominates conversation not only here in the sports books of Nevada but also around water coolers throughout the country.

It seems everyone has an opinion on the game and millions tune in to watch the extravaganza. Over the years, fans have also found that if you're not able to make it to the game, the next best place to watch it is in Las Vegas, with opulent parties in the casinos and proposition wagers that make just about every single play meaningful to some bettors - whether it's a star player scoring a touchdown or a backup tight end catching a pass.

However, there is some concern that the Pittsburgh Steelers-Arizona Cardinals matchup this Super Bowl Sunday might not live up to past successes here. Like every other destination city, visitor numbers are down in Las Vegas and the people that do come are spending less. So there is legitimate concern that the state won't match the $92 million wagered on last year's game.

"The Super Bowl is the biggest betting event of the year," said Jay Kornegay, director of race and sports at the Las Vegas Hilton, "but this economy is hurting everyone. This is setting up to be a heavyweight bout between the two forces. Early indications are that Super Bowl handle is taking a hit."

Jay Rood, head of the MGM Mirage family of books, offers a more optimistic take.

"This is a pretty good matchup for bookmakers with the Steelers involved and the contrasting styles," said Rood, who pointed out that the last time the Steelers were in the Super Bowl, three years ago, Nevada sets its record of $94 million in Super Bowl handle. "Bettors are either on one side or the other; either you think the smash-mouth style of the Steelers will win or you like the reincarnation of Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf."

Rood also thinks the Super Bowl, while not recession-proof, will holds it own.

"It's still the Super Bowl and people still want to come here and bet the game," he said. "Maybe in the past they would come once or twice during the season, plus the Super Bowl, and this year - and we had some dead weeks - maybe they took few trips but now are just doing the Super Bowl. New Year's Eve certainly exceeded expectations."

Cardinals +7 vs. Steelers

Regular readers of this column may recall that I've been on the Cardinals in all three of their playoff wins, so it should come as no surprise that I'm on them one last time.

But it's not just out of a sense of loyalty but because there's still value in the line. I'm thoroughly convinced this line shouldn't be more than a field goal, and that pick-em might be the fairest line because either team can win.

For most of the past two weeks, this line has sat at the Steelers -7, though earlier this week we started to see some books go to 6 1/2. As much as I like the Cardinals (and I also suggest a wager on them to win the game outright at odds of 2-1 or better), I strongly recommend people take them +7 instead of +6 1/2, even if you have to lay -120 (risking $1.20 for every $1 you want to win) instead of the standard -110.

As Rood alluded to above, the matchup everyone is looking at is the Cardinals' high-flying offense against the Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense. Warner spreads the ball around to Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston. And while the passing attack has been the focus of the offense as well as opposing defenses, the Cardinals have found a running attack in the postseason with a rejuvenated Edgerrin James.

The Steelers are stout against the run, but if they bring in extra defensive backs to combat the pass, the Cardinals have shown they are capable of picking up big chunks of yards on the ground. This is a more balanced offense than was seen during the regular season.

The Cardinals' defense is also much improved. Its best performance was standing up to the Panthers' running game in the divisional playoffs, and they can do the same here. The key has been the play of the Arizona defensive backs, who have clamped down on opposing receivers, allowing safety Adrian Wilson to come up to support against the run like almost another linebacker.

The Cardinals' pass rush has been relentless, and the Steelers' protection of QB Ben Roethlisberger has been spotty all year. I think this is where the game will be won or lost. As we saw versus the Ravens, Roethlisberger was under pressure but was able to escape and make plays outside the pocket - which he has done his whole career. He's adept at stepping away from the rush and being able to throw on the move. If the Cardinals can wrap him up when they have him dead to rights, they'll probably win. If Big Ben escapes, he'll be able to make big plays downfield.

These teams didn't face each other this season, but they did meet in 2007 with a lesser Arizona team beating an undefeated Pittsburgh team 21-14. At the time, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, the former Steelers offensive coordinator who was passed over for the head coaching job that went to Mike Tomlin, said he took pride in beating his former team. In that game, the Cardinals sacked Roethlisberger four times, intercepted him twice (you think Whisenhunt knows how to game plan vs. his former pupil?) and Fitzgerald caught 10 passes for 120 yards. I see no reason they can't duplicate that performance.

All this being said, it is just one game, even if it is the Super Bowl, so wager within your budget.

The play: Cardinals for 1 unit.

NFC/AFC title games: 1-1 for net loss of 0.1 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). Season DRF record: 31-19-2 (62 percent), including 3-2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net profit of 10.9 units.