12/27/2004 12:00AM

Half of week's NFL games off the board


I discussed in Wednesday's column how the point spreads on NFL games in the last two weeks of the season can seem off-kilter.

Stardust race and sports book director Bob Scucci used the Saints-Falcons game as a prime example. Despite the fact that the Falcons have been second-best in the NFC this season, and the Saints have been mediocre at best, the Stardust opened the Saints as a 1 1/2-point favorite last Monday because it looked like the Falcons might be resting starters because they had already clinched the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. As we spoke, Scucci adjusted the number to 2 1/2 because early money came in on the Saints.

But that was only the start. In the ensuing days, it was confirmed that quarterback Michael Vick, and tight end Alge Crumpler and other starters would not play, and the line steamed all the way to Saints -7 by kickoff on Sunday. There was nothing the oddsmakers could do to slow down the money on the Saints, as they had the incentive to keep their wild-card hopes alive and the Falcons had nothing to play for. The Saints won 26-13 to cover all available numbers.

When this week's lines went up Monday morning at the Stardust, eight of the 16 games were off the board through a combination of injuries and uncertainty over what kind of teams the playoff-bound squads would field. The Vikings-Redskins game was off the board due in part to the questionable status of Washington running back Clinton Portis, but also because the Vikings' playoff scenario would be more clear after Monday night's Rams-Eagles game. The Packers-Bears game was not on the board because the Packers have clinched the No. 3 seed in the NFC and might rest their starters. The Falcons-Seahawks game was

X-ed out because both teams have already made the playoffs (though the Seahawks might need to win to clinch the NFC West and a first-round home game), and because Vick and Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck are injured.

Out of the eight games that were posted, the only point spread that moved was the Panthers from -6 1/2 to -7 versus the Saints. Three totals moved, all to the under.

Among the other posted lines, there were some quirky ones, notably the Broncos -7 1/2 over the Colts - quirky because the Broncos need to win to make the playoffs while the Colts have clinched the No. 3 seed in the AFC and will likely rest their starters. Also odd is the Chiefs -3 over the Chargers, who are locked into the AFC's No. 4 seed and will likely do the same. Another game that will likely have a strange line is the Bills-Steelers, which was off the board, but the Bills will come favored over the team with the NFL's best record because they need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive while the Steelers have wrapped up home field throughout the AFC playoffs.

Bankroll rallies for .500 weekend

I started the weekend with a loss on the Packers-Vikings game to stay under the total of 56 on Christmas Eve. It looked good early, after a scoreless first quarter and the score tied 7-7 after an eight-minute touchdown drive by the Packers midway through the second quarter. But then Daunte Culpepper hit Nate Burleson with a 68-yard TD pass and the shootout began - 17 additional points were scored in the final five minutes of the first half. The Packers won34-31.

I wasn't even that close on Christmas Day as the Titans, getting 4 points, lost 37-16 to the Broncos.

But Sunday was much better, as I won with the Chargers +7 vs. the Colts (a 34-31 non-covering Indy win in overtime in a game where I thought I had the outright upset), the Texans +7 vs. the Jaguars (an outright 21-0 upset), and the Cardinals +7 vs. the Seahawks (Seattle only won 24-21). My lone loss Sunday was on the Falcons plus the points versus the Saints, so my overall weekend record was 3-3 for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

For the season, my NFL bankroll plays are 37-41-3 for a net loss of 8.1 units.

Wednesday: Houston Bowl
Colorado (-3) vs. UTEP

Whoever made this bowl matchup has a great sense of humor. Among other allegations, Colorado's program has been under scrutiny after recruits became acquainted with escorts, while UTEP is coached by Mike Price, whose tenure at Alabama ended before it really began after a scandal involving a stripper. As for the game, Price has done a remarkable job turning around the UTEP program, but it's still not at the level of Colorado, which has more size, speed, and depth. As long as I don't hear reports of Colorado players missing curfew, I will lay the short price with the Buffaloes.

PLAY: Colorado for 1 unit.

Wednesday: Alamo Bowl
Oklahoma St. (-3 1/2) vs. Ohio St.

Here's my lock of the year: OSU will win this game. Now, you just have to figure out if I mean Oklahoma St. University or Ohio St. University. But seriously, I like the Cowboys of Oklahoma St. to ride off into the sunset with this victory. Ohio St.'s program is in disarray, still dealing with the Maurice Clarett saga, and now the Buckeyes are without starting quarterback Troy Smith, who was suspended for violating undisclosed team and NCAA rules after compiling a 4-1 record in his five starts. He is replaced by former starter Justin Zwick, who was 3-3 against inferior competition earlier in the year. Oklahoma St. will run, run, and run some more with workhorse Vernand Morency going against a Buckeye defense that isn't as imposing as it was in years past. But more than anything else, I will take a 7-4 team out of the Big 12 over a 7-4 team from the Big Ten. I'm looking for a Big 12 sweep on Wednesday.

PLAY: Oklahoma St. for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 1-1 for a net loss of 0.1 units. College season record: 29-22-1 (57 percent) for a net profit of 4.8 units.