12/26/2003 12:00AM

It's make-or-break time in final week


Las Vegas - Most people who bet on football in Las Vegas do so in anonymity. They walk into a sports book, make their wagers, and leave with virtually no one knowing who they bet. Later, when recapping the weekend with friends or family, they can brag about their winners, while conveniently failing to mention the bets they lost. Come on, we've all done it.

But when those plays are posted in public, you pretty much lose that prerogative.

People who follow the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest are well aware of my recent success. My entry, "Dave Tuley/DRF.com," has had back-to-back 5-0 weeks to move into 24th place for the season (prizes are paid through 20th, which would be worth more than $5,000) and am 10-0 in the $10,000 winner-take-all mini-contest that is held the final three weeks of the season for the 214 people who registered by the early-bird deadline.

That feat has also been mentioned on several local sports radio shows and really sets me up for a very public success story or a widely known collapse.

The pressure stays on because, even at 10-0, I could still walk away with nothing. A handicapper going by the name "Lucky 13" is 9-1 and could easily blow on by, and there are a slew of people at 8-2 that could pass both of us if we falter in the final week, which is the hardest week of the season to handicap since there are so many playoff scenarios up in the air and with selections being due by 1 p.m. Friday.

All I can do is go with my five best plays and let the chips fall where they may.

My final five plays in the contest will be 49ers -1 1/2 vs. the Seahawks, Bears +10 vs. the Chiefs, Giants +4 1/2 vs. the Panthers, Cardinals +7 1/2 vs. the Vikings, and Steelers +7 1/2 vs. the Ravens.

I already outlined in Saturday's issue my reasons for liking the 49ers - in fact, with no line earlier in the week, I went on record with the 49ers -3 and said I would lay up to 6 if Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck was out. So I certainly couldn't pass on -1 1/2, even with Hasselbeck now expected to play - so here are the rest of the plays.

Bears (+10) at Chiefs

This was the first game that jumped off the page when the lines came out last week. The Bears have been playing well down the stretch, winning four of their last five, including wins over the Vikings (who routed the Chiefs last Saturday) and on the road over the Broncos (who outplayed the Chiefs in both of their meetings this season). The Chiefs have a high-powered offense, but the defense has been exposed numerous times. Usually when a team has a great record like the Chiefs (12-3), you'll see them ranked among the top run defenses and worst pass defenses because they often are playing with a lead, forcing their opponents to abandon the run and pass on every down. The Chiefs, however, are last in the NFL against the rush, allowing more than 150 yards per game. Chicago's Anthony Thomas is back on track after rushing for 141 yards last week and should help the Bears control the clock. Rookie quarterback Rex Grossman has probably already won the starting job for next year with his performance the past two weeks, and he should have success against the Chiefs, too. The Bears defense has also been playing well and won't be intimidated by the Chiefs after shutting down the Broncos and Vikings in recent weeks. Add in the fact that if the Patriots beat the Bills on Saturday (New England is favored by more than a touchdown), the Chiefs would be locked into the No. 2 seed in the AFC with nothing to gain in this game and might rest a lot of starters. All things considered. The 10 points are hard to pass up here.

PLAY: Bears for 1 unit.

Panthers at Giants (+4 1/2)

The Giants have had a horrible year and are playing under a lame-duck coach, but this is more of a play against the Panthers. Just like last week, when the Panthers led the Lions 20-0 as 10-point favorites and let them in the back door with a punt return and fumble return for TDs in a 20-14 win, the Panthers have no incentive to put forth any extra effort. They clinched the NFC South two weeks ago and are either going to be the No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the NFC, meaning they're going to host a wild-card game next weekend and then go on the road the following week regardless of what happens in this week's game. An obvious concern is the way the Giants' offense has struggled with Jesse Palmer finishing up the season at quarterback. The Panthers have been vulnerable to the pass this season, however, so that could make things a little easier. In addition, Carolina coach John Fox was Jim Fassel's defensive coordinator from 1997-2001, so Fassel should know his tricks. With any sense of pride from the Giants - especially from the defense, which should be able to contain the Panthers' offense - they should send off their soon-to-be former coach with a win.

PLAY: Giants for 1 unit.

Vikings at Cardinals (+7 1/2)

The Cardinals went 0-8 on the road this season, but they are 3-4 at home (5-2 against the spread), including straight-up wins over the Packers and 49ers when they were 7-point underdogs. Minnesota has lost its last four games on the road, including three as favorites (at San Diego, Oakland, and Chicago). This is an important game for the Vikings, who could still miss the playoffs. A win would give them the NFC North title and a home game in the first round, but some of the pressure could be taken off if the Seahawks lose Saturday. Regardless, the Cardinals should be able to keep the game close against the Vikings, who struggle on the road nearly as much as they do.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Steelers (+7 1/2) at Ravens

The Steelers have been out of playoff contention for several weeks, but they are finally playing again like the team that romped over the Ravens 34-15 in the season opener. The defense has been playing much better down the stretch, and if you throw out the snow game at The Meadowlands two weeks ago, the passing game has been clicking and Jerome Bettis has been running well. The Steelers have won six straight trips to Baltimore and coach Bill Cowher really wants to end the season strong. The Ravens will need a win to make the playoffs if the Bengals beat the Browns earlier in the day, but if the Browns pull the upset, the Ravens will probably be resting starters in anticipation of their opening-round playoff game next weekend. But just like in the Cards-Vikings game, the underdog should be live, even against a motivated favorite.

PLAY: Steelers for 1 unit.

Last week's NFL record: 6-1 for a net profit of 4.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season NFL record: 52-32 (62 percent) with five pushes for a net profit of 16.8 units.