09/30/2004 11:00PM

Home underdogs abound - and I'll take five of 'em

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LAS VEGAS - This week's NFL schedule is really wacky in that road teams are favored in 10 of the 14 games.

That may or may not be a record - it's more than anyone I talked to could remember - but things return to normal next week when home teams will be favored in 11 of 14 games.

How do I know this? Well, in addition to the Plaza in downtown Las Vegas having lines up on every NFL game the rest of the year, the Las Vegas Hilton also posts its early lines nearly two weeks in advance. So, next week's games of Oct. 10-11, were up on Tuesday.

If you're in town and looking to bet ahead, or a local trying to snap up some value before the lines get adjusted, those are the first places to shop. But those aren't the only sports books that put up early lines before the rest of the competition.

The Imperial Palace puts up its NFL lines for the following week after halftime of the afternoon games (approximately 3:45 p.m. Pacific time) for about an hour. The Stratosphere also takes early action after the afternoon games conclude (usually by 4:45 p.m.). The Stardust, which historically has posted the city's opener lines, puts its odds up after kickoff of the Sunday night game (at roughly 5:30 p.m.), with the rest of the sports books waiting until Monday morning.

Next week's early lines, courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton, are the Patriots -13 vs. the Dolphins, Steelers -7 1/2 vs. the Browns, Colts -7 1/2 vs. the Raiders, Falcons -5 vs. the Lions, Saints -5 vs. the Buccaneers, Cowboys -6 vs. the Giants, Vikings -4 vs. the Texans, Jets -6 1/2 vs. the Bills, Jaguars -1 vs. the Chargers, Broncos -5 1/2 vs. the Panthers, Seahawks -7 vs. the Rams, 49ers -4 1/2 vs. the Cardinals, Ravens -2 vs. the Redskins, and the Packers -4 vs. the Titans. The Vikings, Jaguars, and Ravens are the only road favorites.

But enough about next week, I've got five home underdogs that I'm counting on this week.

Eagles at Bears (+9)

The Eagles have been impressive with the Donovan McNabb-Terrell Owens connection leading the way, but they could be in for a surprise Sunday in Chicago. Since losing to the Lions in their opener, the Bears have been scrappy, upsetting the Packers - in Green Bay - then hanging tough against the Vikings last week. Those are two potent passing offenses, so the Bears should be well prepared to face the Eagles, especially with linebacker Brian Urlacher expected back in the lineup. This line was at 6 last week at the Hilton, but has risen to 9, not only because of the Eagles' performance but also because Bears quarterback Rex Grossman was injured late in the loss to Minnesota. However, I think Jonathan Quinn can fill in better than people generally are expecting. Granted, Quinn hadn't thrown an NFL pass in nearly two years before last week, but he spent the last two seasons in Kansas City with then-Chiefs quarterbacks coach Terry Shea, who is now the offensive coordinator for the Bears. So, Quinn is comfortable with the offense, and Shea knows what Quinn is capable of handling. The Bears should keep this close at home and have a chance to win it late.

PLAY: Bears for 1 unit.

Redskins at Browns (+3)

I find myself going against the public again as this line, which was pick-em at the Hilton last week, opened this week at Redskins -2 1/2, and has risen to 3. I'm not sure why that's happened, but I'll gladly take the field-goal head-start. Both teams started the seasons with wins - the Browns over the Ravens, which in retrospect looks better than the Redskins' win over the Buccaneers - and both have lost to the Giants and Cowboys. The Browns probably won't be able to run much against Washington's No. 1-rated rush defense, but that didn't matter in the win over the Ravens as quarterback Jeff Garcia made big play after big play. That, as well as the home crowd, should carry the Browns to victory.

PLAY: Browns for 1 unit.

Raiders at Texans (+2)

The Raiders have long had a big-play offense and a ball-hawking defense. It's the same way the Texans play. Quarterback David Carr is trying to be more consistent, and he loves to go deep to Andre Johnson and Corey Bradford. The defense is also opportunistic, as shown by Marcus Coleman's 102-yard interception that helped lead the Texans to last week's upset of the Chiefs. The Texans should ride that momentum on a trip back home - where they are 8-5 as a home underdog in franchise history - and they should beat the Raiders at their own game.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Broncos at Buccaneers (+3)

This is more of a play against the Broncos than it is on the Bucs (because who in their right mind would bet on the Bucs, right?). After the first game of the season, it seemed everyone was saying how brilliant Denver head coach Mike Shanahan was for trading Clinton Portis because he still had Quentin Griffin, who rushed for 156 yards versus the Chiefs. What people didn't take into account was that it was the Chiefs' sieve-like defense that made Griffin look so good. In weeks since, Griffin was held to 66 yards by the Jaguars and seven yards by the Chargers - and the Bronco offense has struggled. The Bucs are still decent vs. the run. Their ranking of 26th is a little skewed because they've been behind in every game and teams have been content to pound the ball on the ground and milk the clock. The Buccaneers' offense will obviously have to get on track to win or cover this game, but I saw at least a little spark last week in the 30-20 loss to the Raiders, when the Bucs finally scored an offensive touchdown. This could be ugly, but the Bucs should get in the win column.

PLAY: Buccaneers for 1 unit.

Rams at 49ers (+3 1/2)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Rams are 1-2 and the 49ers are 0-3. At least the 49ers are 2-1 against the spread; the Rams have failed to cover. That shows emphatically how overrated the Rams are. Now, after playing their first three games in domes - two at home and one on the road in Atlanta - the Rams play their first outdoor game this season. In addition, the Rams are 4-12 against the spread on grass over the past three years, including against-the-spread losses in their last three visits to San Francisco. Obviously, the 49ers aren't as strong now as in years past, but at least they get Tim Rattay back at quarterback.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-4 for a net loss of 3.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 4-11 for a net loss of 8.1 units.