11/30/2002 12:00AM

It's Cards' turn to play spoiler


LAS VEGAS - With five weeks to go in the NFL's regular season, in some ways the playoff picture is getting clearer, but in other ways it's as muddy as it was on opening day.

Of the 16 teams in the AFC, only the Bengals and Texans are eliminated from the hunt. The other 14 teams are between 5-6 and 7-4 and anything can happen.

The Dolphins, Steelers, and Colts are atop their divisions but none of them has more than a one-game lead. In the West, the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders are tied for first at 7-4 and also hold the inside track on the two wild-card spots, but there are eight teams within two games.

Things are a little more spread out in the NFC as the Packers lead the North by a whopping five games, the Eagles and 49ers lead the East and West, respectively, by two games, and the Buccaneers are 1 1/2 games ahead of the Falcons.

The Falcons, at 7-3-1, are sitting pretty for the first wild-card spot, but it's jumbled for the second berth with the Saints, Giants, and Rams looming as the main contenders. The Redskins probably ruined their chances with a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Cowboys, and both those teams are mathematically alive but would need a lot of help, as would the Cardinals and Seahawks.

But as the Cowboys showed Thursday, it's not often that you see NFL teams playing out the string. In the coming weeks, we will see plenty of games in which teams that supposedly have nothing to play for will step up and spoil the playoff chances of a team that needed the game more.

Cardinals (+10) at Kansas City

Let's start with a game involving an also-ran, the Cardinals, and a Chiefs team that is fighting for its playoff life. The Chiefs are dead last in the NFL in total defense, allowing 428 yards per game. Kansas City, ranked No. 4 in offense, will certainly get its yards and points against Arizona's defense, but there's a reason the Chiefs have a losing record and it's on the other side of the ball. The Chiefs rank dead last in total defense. The Cardinals, with Thomas Jones out, should give the ball to Marcel Shipp and set up Jake Plummer to pick apart the Chiefs' vulnerable secondary. The Chiefs' lofty 7-3-1 spread record was built on being underdogs in seven of their first nine games (in which they were 7-1-1 against the number), but they've failed to cover the past two weeks as favorites against the Bills and Seahawks and both those spreads were only around a field goal. Double-digit points is too many to pass up.

PLAY: Cardinals for 2 units.

Titans (+3) at Giants

This is a pivotal game for both teams in the playoff hunt. Expect the Giants to see a steady dose of Eddie George. He is four yards from passing Earl Campbell as the Titans' (formerly the Oilers) franchise record for career running yards. But he won't stop at four yards as the Giants' defense has allowed four teams to top the 100-yard mark since defensive tackle Keith Hamilton was sidelined with a torn Achilles tendon. Another defensive tackle, Cornelius Griffin, is also questionable for this game, and defensive end Kenny Holmes has a sore knee, giving George more room to run. That will make it easier on Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who will be trying to overcome injured ribs and turf toe. If McNair is unable to go, Neil O'Donnell is perfectly capable of running the offense. The Titans' defense is also playing well, allowing just more than 16 points per game the last six weeks, and

should be able to contain a Giants' offense that scored only two touchdowns in a 16-14 loss to the Texans last week and barely beat the Vikings and Redskins the two weeks prior.

PLAY: Titans for 2 units

Texans at Colts (-11)

The Texans have been one of my most profitable teams in recent weeks, covering their last three games, but I don't like them in this spot even though I'm laying double digits. The Colts are coming off an inspiring 23-20 overtime win last Sunday night at Denver that is the kind that can turn around a team's season. I wouldn't be surprised if they win at least four of their next five games and claim home field for the AFC playoffs. When these teams played in week 3 in Houston, the Colts were favored by 10 1/2 points and were in control throughout the game on the way to a 23-3 victory. Even if Edgerrin James isn't 100 percent healthy(though he is expected to start), the Colts still have too many weapons for the Houston defense to contain, and the Texans don't have enough of their own to keep up.

PLAY: Colts for 1 unit.

Jets at Raiders (-6)

This Monday night game is huge for both teams. The Raiders need to win to stay tied atop the AFC West with the winner of Sunday's Broncos-Chargers game in the AFC West, while the Jets need to keep pace in a four-way battle in the AFC East with the Dolphins and Bills (who play Sunday) and the Patriots (who won Thursday). So it comes down to backing the better team. The Raiders have the No. 1 offense in the

league, averaging 413 yards per game (a full 26 yards more than the next-nearest team) while the Jets are No. 23 on defense, allowing 353 yards per game. The Jets will be facing a much more hostile defense than they did the last two weeks in wins over the Lions and Bills. In addition, the Raiders regained their Monday night swagger with a 34-10 win at Denver three weeks ago.

PLAY: Raiders for 1 unit.

Season record: 46-54-3, including Thanksgiving losses on the Redskins -1 and the Patriots-Lions over 44, for a net loss of 10.8 units.