09/18/2003 11:00PM

Five NFL dogs likely to have their day


LAS VEGAS - Favorites have been cashing for bettors so far in the NFL, going 19-10-2 against the spread in the first two weeks, but the dogs could be barking this Sunday. Here are five games in which the favorites (and their backers) might be upset by day's end.

Giants (+2 1/2) at Redskins

The Redskins are 2-0, with the benefit of having played the Jets without Chad Pennington and the Falcons without Michael Vick (and they barely won both). I'm going with the Giants for the same reason I took the Jets over the Skins in the season-opener: the pass rush should be able to put pressure on young Redskins QB Patrick Ramsey and force him into mistakes. In that first game, the Jets were unable to capitalize on two turnovers in Washington territory, coming away with only one field goal. The Giants' offense is more likely to convert those types of opportunities into touchdowns. And I'm confident the Giants will be able to get to Ramsey. They usually have problems with mobile quarterbacks (like the Cowboys' Quincy Carter on Monday night), but Ramsey should be a sitting duck (like the Rams' Kurt Warner was in the Giants' season-opener). In addition, the Giants' offense should come in confident off its second-half rally vs. the Cowboys. We only have to hope the special teams don't let us down.

PLAY: Giants for 1 unit.

Saints (+4 1/2) at Titans

This could be a war of attrition as both teams are banged up just two games into the season. Las Vegas sports books took this game off the board Wednesday when it was learned Titans quarterback Steve McNair didn't finish practice because of the dislocated finger on his throwing hand. The line went back up with the Titans favored by 4 1/2. Obviously, the Titans are not the same team without McNair (he was listed as "questionable" as of Friday) under center. Billy Volek was ineffective in relief last week against the Colts, and Eddie George has clearly lost a step. Saints coach Jim Haslett is putting together a patchwork defense, but it might not matter if the Titans' offense continues to struggle. But even if the Titans' O vs. Saints D matchup is seen as a wash, the Saints O clearly gains the edge on the Titans' D. Injuries have also hit the Titans' defensive front, which allowed the Colts' Edgerrin James to run for 130 yards last week. Deuce McAllister could have similar success for the Saints, especially with their spread offense. Saints QB Aaron Brooks has the mobility to buy time and find his three receivers (Joe Horn, Donte Stallworth, and Jerome Pathon) downfield. I see the Saints pulling the outright upset, but I'll gladly accept the points.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

Chiefs at Texans (+7 1/2)

Many people are calling the Chiefs the best team in the league, and it's hard to argue that based on how they have looked so far. The offense has been clicking and the defense is much improved over last year. Nevertheless, a lot of the same things were being said about the Dolphins before they lost to the Texans in the season-opener. The Chiefs won their first two games at home, and now have to travel to Houston, which is playing its home opener, and its fans should be as supportive and loud as they were last year when the Texans beat the Cowboys in the first game in franchise history. Houston also had a home upset over the Giants. And it does not take much to rattle the Chiefs on the road. They lost their last five games away from home last season. The Texans don't figure to blow anyone out this season, but their defense under head coach Dom Capers is solid enough to keep their games close. If Texans QB David Carr gets time to throw, he could have a big day with receivers Andre Johnson, Jabar Gaffney, and Corey Bradford. (Last week, the Steelers' Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward both had 100 yards vs. the Chiefs' secondary.) We just need them to stay within a touchdown.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Rams (+3) at Seahawks

With the Seahawks at 2-0 and the Rams at 1-1, this is a key early-season game in the NFC West. The Rams bounced back from their season-opening loss to the Giants to defeat the 49ers, the other NFC West contender, last week. The Seahawks have been impressive in routs over the Saints and Cardinals, but this will be their first true test. Marc Bulger starts again at QB for the Rams, and he really came through in the clutch vs. the 49ers and should carry the momentum into this game. Marshall Faulk will also be used to help slow down the pass rush and give Bulger time to throw. Despite facing vulnerable defenses, the Seahawks' offense hasn't been particularly effective. QB Matt Hasselbeck has completed less than 50 percent of his passes and will be facing a faster defense. It looks like a perfect spot for the Rams to regain control of their division.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Browns (+7 1/2) at 49ers

I have been avoiding the Browns so far this year because of their quarterback controversy, and Kelly Holcomb has indeed struggled while looking over his shoulder. Nevertheless, just as everyone seems to be giving up on the Browns (and being more than a touchdown underdog shows that oddsmakers are in that group, too), I think the 49ers' weak secondary could be the answer to Holcomb's problems. If the 49ers continue to blitz, Holcomb could hit Quincy Morgan, Kevin Johnson, and Dennis Northcutt for quick strikes in one-on-one coverage that could go for big yardage. The Browns' defense was embarrassed last week after giving up Jamal Lewis' record 295 yards rushing and should put forth an inspired effort. They're not playing in the Dawg Pound back in Cleveland, but the Browns are a live dog.

PLAY: Browns for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-1-1 for a net profit of 1.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 5-3-2 for net profit of 1.7 units.