09/09/2004 11:00PM

Holding rule changes game

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LAS VEGAS - The first game of the NFL season is in the books, with the Patriots beating the Colts 27-24 on Thursday night.

With the point spread at Patriots -3 1/2 earlier in the week, there were a lot of bettors who had a decision (lucky for the Colts bettors, bad for those backing the Pats at that price), but for the majority of people it was a push.

But even for those who broke even, there were a lot of lessons to be learned from the opening game, especially from a betting perspective. We saw that the officials are definitely going to follow through on enforcing the defensive holding penalty beyond five yards.

We saw mixed impact of the rule during the preseason, but with the top receivers playing the whole game instead of a few series, and starting quarterbacks also going the distance, the regular-season games are where we're likely to see the rule take its full effect.

Thursday night's game went over the total of 44 1/2, and probably should have gone over further if not for a couple of red-zone turnovers. Scoring is very likely to be up, and I'll be betting more overs than unders until the oddsmakers adjust. In fact, I've made a token bet on every over this first week, and we'll see how it fares.

But in this space we're trying to find point-spread winners, and I think the new defensive holding rules are going to affect those outcomes, too. As we saw Thursday night, both offenses had drives kept alive with defensive holding penalties, and then when defenders got passive and afraid of being flagged, the receivers ran free and were easy targets for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

This will open things up throughout the league, and I see it helping a lot of underdogs cover. We are likely to see more comebacks than usual vs. prevent defenses as teams with a lead will be basically defenseless to stop a hurry-up offense with four to five receivers running around (and five potential holding flags) on each play.

I had better be right with the underdogs, because I have five for Sunday. Hopefully we don't see a repeat of last year, when favorites went 9-5-1 against the spread in the opening week, 10-5-1 in the second week, and 9-5 in the third to start the season 28-15-2 (65 percent).

Cardinals (+11) at Rams

This is not a play on the Cardinals as much as it's a play on the parity of the NFL and the increased enforcement of the defensive holding penalty - and it's also a bet against the Rams. Although I think new coach Dennis Green will have success in Arizona, he won't be able to turn things around overnight. But what he has is a lot of players who will give their all - remember the late rally to knock the Vikings out of the playoffs last year on the final play of the Cards' season? So, they'll be playing to the end here, too, and even if they're not close throughout, they're a great candidate for a back-door cover. I don't advise that as a main reason to make any play on an underdog, but it does add to the value.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Giants (+9) at Eagles

A lot of the above could be copied here (except that the Giants gave up last season). With Kurt Warner, Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer, and Jeremy Shockey, the Giants will be able to put some points on the board, even against the Eagles, who have had to replace stud cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. The Giants defense will have trouble containing Terrell Owens, who could be a one-man wrecking crew with the new rules, but if they can pressure and contain Donovan McNabb in the pocket, they could pull the upset of the opening week. Again, I like getting more than a touchdown with a team that I feel can shred a prevent defense under the new rules

PLAY: Giants for 1 unit.

Buccaneers (+2) at Redskins

This line looked even better Thursday when a story circulated - spurred on by CBS.SportsLine.com - that Redskins running back Clinton Portis was injured and would miss eight to 12 weeks. The game was taken off the board in Vegas, and then reposted when the story turned out to be a hoax. When the trade was made for Portis, I felt the Redskins lost more on defense in dealing Champ Bailey than they gained in the former Broncos running back. Regardless, this is a case of two teams coming off disappointing years. The public is on Washington because of new coach Joe Gibbs. They'll be improved for sure, but they have more ground to make up than the Bucs, who are only 19 months removed from their Super Bowl win.

PLAY: Buccaneers for 1 unit.

Seahawks at Saints (+2 1/2)

It seems that everyone is on the Seahawks in this game as the line continues to climb, but I'll take the contrarian stance. The Saints' offense can play with anyone: Aaron Brooks can put up big numbers, Deuce McAllister might be the most underrated running back in the league, and the receiving corps is top-notch. The Seahawks will be explosive, too, but we saw last year that they play much better at home than on the road, where they were 2-6. I'll take the home dog in a game that should be a shootout.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

Falcons at 49ers (+3 1/2)

This will be home dog No. 2. The 49ers are in rebuilding mode, and I would normally shy away from playing them, but the fact is that the Falcons are overrated at this point. I'm a huge Michael Vick fan, but he has been struggling with the new West Coast offense and played very little in the preseason, so he'll still be working the kinks out against a 49ers defense that should be improved. On offense, the 49ers' cupboard isn't totally bare. Kevan Barlow can run and catch passes out of the backfield, and receivers Brandon Lloyd, Cedrick Wilson, Curtis Conway, and rookie Rashaun Woods can all make big plays.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Season record: 0-0. Last year: 62-40-5 (61 percent) for a net profit of 18 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1).