10/11/2004 11:00PM

Frantic finishes kept bettors on edge

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LAS VEGAS - Sunday was another prime example of how NFL games can turn winners into losers, and vice versa, in a matter of minutes or even seconds. Television recap shows had a field day with all the fantastic finishes this week, but they were just talking about straight-up winners in the traditional sense. Football bettors know the results were even crazier when taking the point spread into account.

* The Vikings took a 28-14 lead over the Texans with 6:49 remaining in the game and were penalized for excessive celebration, as they thought they had the game won. Their backers also thought they had a winning bet, with the Vikings favored by 3 1/2 to 4/1/2, depending on when they made their bets. But the Texans rallied with two touchdowns to force overtime. It then looked like Houston bettors were going to win, since most NFL overtime games are decided by field goals, but Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper hit Marcus Robinson with a 50-yard touchdown pass to give the Vikings a 34-28 win and an unlikely cover.

* All the postgame talk after the Patriots' 24-10 win over the Dolphins was about the Pats setting a record with their 19th straight win. Despite the Pats' domination, gamblers knew their bets weren't determined until very late. The Patriots opened as 13 1/2-point favorites and were bet down to 11 by kickoff. New England never pulled away and was barely covering with under three minutes remaining, when Jay Fiedler hit Marty Booker with a 45-yard pass to give the Dolphins a first-and-goal at the Patriots' 1-yard line. A so-called "meaningless" touchdown would have given Miami the backdoor cover, but the Patriots put on one of their patented goal-line stands for four plays and secured the 14-point victory. In addition, the game fell on the closing total of 34 points, so over bettors were cursing their bad luck, too.

* The total on the Panthers-Broncos game was bet down from 38 1/2 to 37. With 6:53 remaining in the game, Carolina trailed, 20-17, and lined up at the Denver 25-yard line for a potential tying field goal that would have put the score over the total. A false start was called on the Panthers, however, and Carolina tackle Matt Willig picked up the flag and threw it, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That moved the Panthers out of field goal range, and they had to punt. The Broncos ran the rest of the time off the clock.

* The Seahawks kicked a field goal with 8:42 remaining to take a 27-10 lead over the Rams as 7-point favorites. Seattle looked like a cinch to win and take a commanding lead in the NFC West, but the Rams scored 17 points to force overtime. Unlike the Texans, the Rams completed their comeback with a TD in overtime for the 33-27 upset.

* The Rams' comeback was stunning, but not as unlikely as the 49ers' rally against the Cardinals. At least the Rams have an explosive offense that gave them hope. The 49ers trailed 28-12 with more than eight minutes remaining and needed two touchdowns and two 2-point conversions just to force overtime. (I've found myself cheering for this to happen many times over the years, but the scenario had never played out until last Sunday.) The 49ers pulled the feat and then kicked a field goal in overtime to pull out the 31-28 miracle and cover the 1-point spread.

NFL betting trends

The home vs. road battle was 7-7 on the scoreboard, but road teams continued their dominance against the spread by going 9-5. For the season, road teams are 44-27-3 (62 percent). Road favorites had their first losing week, going 1-2 to slip a little to 14-10-1 overall (58 percent). The only road favorites this week are the Redskins -1 vs. the Bears, Chiefs -2 vs. the Jaguars, Broncos -2 vs. the Raiders, and Vikings -3 1/2 over the Saints.

Underdogs as a whole went 8-6 against the spread and hold a slight 37-34-3 edge for the season.

The aforementioned pushes in totals wagering on the Patriots-Dolphins and Broncos-Panthers games were the first of the season. It was also the first weekend that there weren't more unders than overs, which isn't saying much since there were six of each. For the year, unders still hold a commanding lead at 42-30-2 (58 percent).

Who's hot, who's not

The hottest team, obviously, is the Patriots, winners of 19 straight. They are also 15-3-1 against the spread in that stretch, with the push coming in the season-opening 3-point win over the Colts. Even more impressive is that they're 16-1-2 in their last 19 regular-season games since the 31-0 loss at Buffalo in last year's season opener, and 11-1-1 in their last 13 games at home - 10-0-1 if not counting the playoffs. The Pats are 4-point favorites vs. the Seahawks this Sunday. (Note: the Patriots pushed as 3-point dogs in their last loss, to the Redskins in September 2003, and in last year's playoffs they failed to cover in wins over the Titans and in the Super Bowl vs. the Panthers.)

The other amazing streak belongs to the Bills, who have gone under the total in 18 of their last 20 games, including their last 12 at home. The Dolphins-Bills game was off the board at most sports books as of noon Tuesday because Miami's quarterback situation is up in the air, but the Leroy's outlets posted an incredibly low total of 31 for the two low-scoring teams with better-than-average defenses.

As for this season's point-spread trends, the Eagles are 4-0; the Colts are 4-0-1; the Patriots are 3-0-1; the Giants are 4-1; the Chargers are 3-1-1; and the Jets, Seahawks, and Lions are 3-1.

On the downside, the Bengals are 0-4; the Dolphins, Redskins, Packers, and Saints are all 1-4; the Buccaneers are 1-3-1; and the Chiefs are 1-3.

In totals wagering, the Dolphins are 4-0-1 with the under; the Panthers are 3-0-1; and the Jaguars, Falcons, Redskins, and Bucs are 4-1.

No teams are unbeaten with the over. The Chargers, Texans, and Steelers are 4-1, and the Jets and Vikings are 3-1.

Bankroll update

My NFL bankroll plays bounced back a little with a 4-1 mark Sunday. The only loss was on the Texans +4 vs. the Vikings. My winners were on the Lions +7 vs. the Falcons (which I called as the biggest outright upset), the Bills +7 vs. the Jets, the Chargers +3 over the Jaguars, and the 49ers -1 over the Cardinals.

It would be easy to complain that I should have gone 5-0, but the truth is I got pretty lucky with the 49ers and the Bills - who were down 13-0 at the start of the fourth quarter and looking pretty bad - so I'll be happy with 4-1. For the season, NFL bankroll plays moved a little closer to respectability, at 10-14-1 for a net loss of 5.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

In the colleges, I went 1-3, with an outright win with Wisconsin +3 1/2 vs. Ohio St., but losses with Colorado +6 1/2 vs. Oklahoma St., Arizona +11 vs. UCLA, and Nebraska +7 vs. Texas Tech. That dropped me to 12-9-1 in the colleges for a net profit of 2.1 units.