11/07/2003 12:00AM

Go against overblown Chiefs

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LAS VEGAS - The talk of the first half of the NFL season has been the Kansas City Chiefs, who are the only remaining undefeated team, at 8-0, and halfway to a perfect regular season.

We've seen the obligatory features on the players from the 1972 Miami Dolphins - the last NFL team to complete an unbeaten season - and heard endless commentary about whether the Chiefs are capable of pulling off the feat. The experts seem to agree that the two biggest obstacles are the Dec. 7 game at Denver and the Dec. 20 game at Minnesota. Others say the Chiefs aren't as good as they're cracked up to be and that it's a huge longshot for a team to go undefeated in today's era of parity.

Well, with so many opinions flying around, you knew it wouldn't be long before some oddsmakers put up some lines. On Oct. 30, Chuck Esposito, the director of race and sports for Park Place Entertainment, put up the first lines in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace with the Chiefs at 100-1 to complete the regular season with 16 wins.

"A lot of people were talking about it, and with the Chiefs at 8-0 at the midpoint and having a bye week, we thought this could generate some interest," Esposito said.

Without going into specifics, Esposito said "a few" bets were taken at 100-1 and that the odds were systematically lowered to the current level of 5-1 as of Friday morning. For comparison's sake, the Olympic offshore book (thegreek.com) had the Chiefs at 9.5-1 to run the table as of Friday.

Esposito also posted odds on all of the other scenarios. Fourteen wins is now the favorite at 2-1, with 15 wins at 3-1. Thirteen wins opened as the 9-5 favorite but has since been raised to 7-2. The odds go up from there - 12 wins at 6-1, 11 wins at 25-1, 10 wins at 200-1, and nine wins at 400-1. Eight wins (meaning they wouldn't win another game) opened at 500-1 and has been raised to 1,000-1.

Browns (+10) at Chiefs

With all that attention from oddsmakers and bettors, we're sure to see inflated lines on the Chiefs the rest of the way, starting with Sunday's game vs. the Browns. Count me among those that believe the Chiefs are doing it with mirrors. They're not a fluke, but they're certainly not invincible. They've benefited from a lot of special teams touchdowns and have prospered despite a bend-but-don't-break defense that ranks only 27th in yardage allowed. And I'm fully aware that a team that scores quickly on offense or special teams is going to be on defense a lot more and give up a lot of yardage in prevent defenses, too. The Browns have had an up-and-down year, but Kelly Holcomb is back at quarterback and last year he threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns against the Chiefs in a 40-39 loss. I'll take a similar shootout this time with the double-digit head start. The Browns are also worth a shot on the money line at 3-1 or higher.

PLAY: Browns for 1 unit.

Cardinals (+7 1/2) at Steelers

At first glance, most people wouldn't think twice about the Steelers being more than a touchdown favorite over the Cardinals. After all, Pittsburgh has been one of the most successful franchises in NFL history and the Steelers been competitive for the past decade while the Cardinals are, well, the Cardinals. But this line doesn't reflect the current strengths of the teams. The Cardinals are finally playing with some confidence after back-to-back wins over the 49ers and Bengals. The running game has picked up behind Marcel Shipp (Emmitt Smith's replacement) and Jeff Blake is hitting his young receivers in the clutch. Talent-wise, the Cardinals are still among the worst teams in the league, but the Steelers aren't playing much better, losing five straight, including three of those at home, and allowing 27 points a game in that span while averaging only 15 themselves. The Steelers aren't good enough right now to be laying more than a touchdown to anyone.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Texans at Bengals (-5 1/2)

The Bengals lost for me last week vs. the Cardinals, but I'm coming right back with them. First-year coach Marvin Lewis has this team heading in the right direction. The offense has been efficient with the running tandem of Corey Dillon (questionable with a strained groin) and his backup Rudi Johnson and the surprising play of quarterback Jon Kitna - who, by the way, was 22 for 27 for 263 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-3 win in Houston last year. The Texans get back the services of QB David Carr, but he could be showing signs of rust after missing the last two games with an ankle injury.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Colts (-6) at Jaguars

The Colts' offense ranks first in the AFC with 355 yards per game and is second in scoring, averaging 28.9 points. The Jaguars have not played well against the pass, and that doesn't bode well against Peyton Manning. Jaguars rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich is showing a lot of promise, but he continues to make rookie mistakes, throwing into coverage and fumbling the ball in the pocket. He fumbled three times last week, though he recovered one himself. The Colts dominated in the first meeting between the two teams, winning 23-13 with the Jaguars not getting into the end zone until Leftwich threw a TD pass with a little over a minute remaining. This game should follow the same script.

PLAY: Colts for 1 unit.

Vikings (-5 1/2) at Chargers

This is risky, taking two road favorites - after I've written that road dogs are due to start covering as oddsmakers adjust the lines. But it seems especially justified in this case. The Chargers are really a team without a home. They had their last home game, which came two weeks ago vs. the Dolphins, moved to Tempe, Ariz., because of the California wildfires, then they had to leave town early to practice in Illinois because of all the smoke. After that, they played flat in a 20-7 loss to the Bears. Now they return home with reminders all around of the problems in their community. The Chargers are going with Doug Flutie at quarterback, but their other quarterback, Drew Brees, wasn't the main problem with the offense. He often didn't have time to throw, and didn't have enough open receivers when he did have time. Flutie might buy a little more time with his scrambling, but it's asking a lot of an offense that has scored more than 21 points only twice this season to keep up with the high-powered Vikings' offense, which is even stronger now with the return of running back Michael Bennett.

PLAY: Vikings for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-3 for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 27-17-4 for net profit of 8.3 units.