01/16/2004 12:00AM

Ignore the hype, bet Patriots


LAS VEGAS - The first eight games of this year's NFL playoffs have been nothing short of outstanding.

There have been only two blowouts - Panthers over the Cowboys and Colts over the Broncos two weeks ago in the wild-card round. The other six games have been decided by seven points or fewer, with three of those contests going to overtime.

It's hard to imagine Sunday's AFC and NFC title games being any more exciting than what we've already seen. Of course, it wouldn't bother me to see two blowouts - as long as I'm on the right side.

Colts at Patriots (-3)

All of the early money has been coming in on the Colts, but I'm not falling for the hype. The fact that the line has been bet down to 3 gives definite value on the Patriots, who are 9-0 at home and 8-1 against the spread, failing to cover only in a 17-14 win over the Titans last week as a 4-point favorite.

In the first meeting between these two teams, Nov. 30 in Indianapolis, the Patriots jumped out to a 17-0 lead, the Colts rallied to tie it at 31-31, the Pats went up 38-31, the Colts cut it to 38-34, then the Patriots' Ted Washington and Willie McGinest stuffed the Colts' Edgerrin James on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line to preserve the victory.

That was one of the best games of the year. It was also the last time New England quarterback Tom Brady has thrown an interception. In fact, he hasn't thrown an interception all year at home.

Many other stats are in the Patriots' favor. The Colts' Peyton Manning is 2-7 lifetime vs. New England, including 0-4 at Foxboro and 1-4 vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose defensive game planning is especially effective against immobile quarterbacks.

This will definitely be a chess match at the line of scrimmage with Manning calling audibles and the New England defense trying to disguise its coverage. Expect to see linebackers faking the blitz and dropping into the passing lanes to make decisions more difficult for Manning.

New England's all-pro cornerback Ty Law is also adept at reading Manning, as four of his 35 career interceptions have come against him, with two returned for touchdowns.

Of course, the Patriots' defense as a whole has played great this season, especially at home, where it has allowed an average of 9.1 points, including just 5.1 points per game in the last seven games as the weather has turned colder.

The Patriots' offense has shown it will do whatever it takes to win, whether it's in a shootout like the first meeting, or in a defensive battle. Even though the Colts' defense is improved from years past, it's still their Achilles' heel and continues to get bailed out by the offense. If Antowain Smith isn't 100 percent, Kevin Faulk and Mike Cloud (expected to be activated for this game) can get the job done on the ground and set up Brady's efficient passing game. Patriot receivers Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens, and Bethel Johnson, and tight end Daniel Graham might not be a good as the Colts' group of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokely, and Marcus Pollard, but they run their routes well for Brady. The key is that the Patriots get to go against the Indy secondary while the Colts' crew will have a tougher time against New England's defense.

Lastly, I won't repeat everything I wrote last week about Colts' kicker Mike Vanderjagt being perfect on the season and facing a tougher task outdoors, on grass, and in the cold, but I would still rather have Adam Viniatieri on my side.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Panthers (+4 1/2) at Eagles

Just like the Colts-Patriots, these teams also played each other on Nov. 30, and now they're facing off Sunday for a trip to the Super Bowl. Who woulda thunk it?

In the first game, the Panthers had every opportunity to win and continually settled for field-goal attempts, but the normally dependable John Kasay missed three of four. He also missed an extra point as the Eagles escaped with a 25-16 victory despite being outgained 336 yards to 283.

Both teams were lucky to escape with wins last week, though the Panthers' win over the Rams has to be considered much more impressive than the Eagles' win over the Packers. The Eagles, who have been horrible against the run all year (allowing 129 rushing yards a game, 22nd in the NFL), could not stop the rushing game of the Packers and only stayed in the game when Green Bay tried to get too cute with the passing game.

The Panthers are not likely to do that as they definitely have a run-first attitude. Stephen Davis remains questionable, but DeShaun Foster showed he is fully capable of stepping in at running back, and actually gives Carolina more of a breakaway threat.

When the Panthers do go to the air, Jake Delhomme has proven that he can make things happen within the system. He knows that championship teams win with defense, and he doesn't put his defense in bad spots with costly turnovers. In that way, he reminds me of past Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks such as Jim McMahon, Jeff Hostetler, Trent Dilfer, and even Brady.

Expect to see him test Eagles' cornerback Troy Vincent, who is returning from a strained hip flexor.

When the Eagles are on offense, the Panthers' pass rush will be licking their chops after watching Donovan McNabb get sacked eight times last week. Obviously, they also have to worry about him breaking the pocket and taking off, but the Panthers actually have some linemen who can probably run him down. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan is also expected to be a spy in case McNabb decides to run.

The Eagles are still without Brian Westbrook, which limits their offense further, and I just don't see their running back by committee being too successful.

I see this game as a toss-up, with maybe the Panthers even being a slightly more likely winner based on the matchups, so I can't pass up taking the points. Based on both teams' styles of play, this looks like a 20-17 type of game.

PLAY: Panthers for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 59-39 (60 percent) for a net profit of 16.1 units.