09/17/2004 12:00AM

Five spots to take the points


LAS VEGAS - First impressions can be often be misleading, so the challenge this week is in sorting out what happened last week in the NFL and applying it to this week's games.

With the teams that came off well - kind of like some people who put their best foot forward on a first date - the trick is to determine if they're really that good, or if they will burn us in the long run. With teams that underachieved, you have to figure out if it's worth it to overlook their faults or if the bad first impression is a sign of a train wreck waiting to happen.

Rams (+2 1/2) at Falcons

The Rams and Falcons are both teams I went against last week (and both failed to cover while winning outright), but the Rams showed me more in their 17-10 victory over the Cardinals than the Falcons did in their 21-19 win over the 49ers. The Rams outgained the Cards 448-260 and would have won in a rout if not for three turnovers deep in Arizona territory. They should have similar success against an Atlanta defense that allowed a mediocre San Francisco offense to move at will in the fourth quarter. On the other side of the ball, Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick continues to struggle with the West Coast offense. Lastly, the Rams love playing on turf in domes, so they will feel right at home in this road game.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Bears (+9) at Packers

The Las Vegas Hilton's early line had Green Bay as a 7-point favorite in its early line two weeks ago, and after the Packers' impressive national-television victory over the Panthers on Monday night, the line is now 9. That's a little added value in my book. The public is also focusing on the fact the Bears lost their opener to the Lions, who snapped a 24-game road losing streak. But, if you break down the Bears' loss, it wasn't that bad. They were ahead 7-3 early in the third quarter and lining up for a field goal. The Lions blocked it and ran it back for a touchdown. So, instead of the Bears leading 10-3, they were down 10-7. That's a huge swing, not only on the scoreboard but also in momentum. Credit goes to the Lions for earning the victory, but the Bears outgained them 342-262 as the Lions weren't able to move the ball consistently on the Bears' D. Granted, the Packers have a better offense than the Lions and have won and covered the last seven games vs. the Bears, but I will take more than a TD in a divisional rivalry on any given Sunday.

PLAY: Bears for 1 unit.

Patriots at Cardinals (+8)

In the afternoon games on Sunday, I'm siding with two home underdogs. In the first matchup, I'm taking the points with the Cardinals for the second straight week. Last year, the Cardinals were 6-2 against the spread at home last year, including outright upsets of the Packers, 49ers, Bengals, and Vikings. As shown again last week, this team doesn't quit, and that's crucial when you're playing underdogs. There's no need to break down the offenses and defenses as the Patriots are clearly better on both sides of the ball, but that doesn't always matter in the NFL, especially in regard to the point spread. Note: the Patriots are 6-15 against the spread since 1992 when facing teams who have won less than 25 percent of their games (according to statfox.com). That's partly because their methodical offense doesn't tend to run up the score.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Jets at Chargers (+3 1/2)

Both teams are coming off well-earned victories. You had to like how great the Jets' Curtis Martin looked in running for 196 yards vs. the Bengals, but he should have a harder time against a Chargers' defense that played surprisingly well in their win over the Texans, including forcing four turnovers. This game will probably come down to whether the Chargers' offense can keep up with the Jets, though San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson is capable of winning the game on his own. He was effective on the ground last week because the receivers and tight end Antonio Gates stepped up, but look for him to catch more balls out of the backfield this week in one-on-one coverage from linebackers. Every few years the Chargers seem to get off to a fast start before crashing to earth. I look for them to improve to 2-0.

PLAY: Chargers for 1 unit.

Vikings (+3 1/2) at Eagles

Monday night's matchup of the Vikings and Eagles should be very entertaining. Both offenses broke from the gate sharply in easy victories last week, but I have to say I found the Vikings' performance more impressive as it was against last year's No. 1 defense, the Cowboys, and they had a more consistent running attack, as 50 of the Eagles' 141 rushing yards came on one play. The Vikings' defense also looked less prone to giving up big plays (though admittedly playing against a weaker offense). Make no mistake, there will be big plays made by both teams - primarily by the Vikings' Randy Moss and the Eagles' Terrell Owens, but the fact the Vikings can control the action a little on the ground, plus getting 3 1/2 in a coin-flip of a game, puts me clearly on their side.

PLAY: Vikings for 1 unit.

Last week and NFL season record: 2-3 for a net loss of 1.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).